Judges Havey, Skillman and Lesemann.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Havey, P.j.a.d.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cape May County.
Plaintiffs filed this action under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, for damages arising out of a search of plaintiff Charles Maudsley's (Maudsley) fishing boat, the "Imperial." Plaintiffs claim that defendants, members of the State Police, as well as members of the Cape May County Narcotics Task Force, the County Prosecutor's Office and Sheriff's Department, and the Lower Township Police Department (the County defendants) violated Maudsley's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment and Article I, § 7 of the New Jersey Constitution.
Pertinent here are two pretrial rulings. The first denied plaintiffs' motion to compel the County defendants to disclose the identity of a confidential informant whose information formed the basis of a warrant to search the Imperial. The second are partial summary judgment rulings in favor of the County defendants determining that the search warrant was supported by probable cause and therefore valid. Essentially, these rulings precluded plaintiffs from presenting evidence that the conduct of the County defendants, who applied for the search warrant, was objectively unreasonable because they failed to investigate and corroborate the information provided to them by the informant. Specifically, an August 16, 1996 order entered by the trial court provides:
"that plaintiffs are precluded from presenting any evidence, at trial, pertaining to the investigation of Robert Cramer, Steven McShaffry, Lt. Al Barnett, the Cape May Prosecutor's Office, and the Cape May County Narcotics Task Force, and their individual officers and agents, pertaining to said defendants' investigation, the application for the search warrant and a violation of plaintiff's civil rights as said violation may relate [to] the police conduct in obtaining the search warrant."
During the trial to a jury, plaintiffs conceded that they no longer had a viable § 1983 claim against the County defendants in light of the trial court's pretrial rulings. *fn1 Consequently, the trial court dismissed the claim.
The single issue presented to the jury was whether the State Police defendants had used unreasonable and excessive force by committing assaults upon Maudsley and unlawfully detaining and frisking him during the execution of the warrant. The jury rendered a no-cause verdict in favor of each of the State Police defendants.
Plaintiffs now appeal, raising the following points:
Point I - The trial court erred in dismissing claims against the county defendants and in [ruling] that plaintiffs could not introduce evidence at trial of the lack of investigation.
Point II - It was error for the trial court to refuse to compel an identification of the confidential informant.
Point III - The verdict in favor of the State Troopers was against the weight of the evidence and so shocking to the judicial conscience that the court erred in not granting a new trial.
We conclude that the trial court erred in denying plaintiffs' motion to compel disclosure of the identity of the informant. We therefore reverse that order, the subsequent partial summary judgment, and the judgment dismissing the complaint against the County defendants and remand for further proceedings. We affirm the judgment entered on the jury's no-cause verdict in favor of the State Police defendants.
As noted, prior to trial, the County defendants moved for partial summary judgment arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity because their actions were based upon a search warrant, lawfully issued, and supported by probable cause. The evidentiary material presented in support of the motion established that on October 2, 1991, Senior Investigator Robert Cramer of the Cape May County Narcotics Task Force, applied for a warrant to search the Imperial. In his application Cramer described the Imperial. The evidence to be seized was referred to as various controlled dangerous substances, weapons and "unidentified persons at the premises . . . ." Cramer prepared the application in support of the warrant based upon conversations he had with Task Force Agent Steven McShaffry. The following facts were set forth in Cramer's application:
"(a) On September 27, 1991 a confidential informant [hereafter] referred to as CI-1, who has provided information in the past that has led to the arrest and conviction of numerous persons for violations of controlled dangerous substance laws. Contacted Agent McShaffry of the Cape May County Narcotics Task Force and stated that within the next few days a large shipment of Cocaine would be coming into the Lobster House docks on a fishing boat. CI-1 stated that the shipment would be coming from the south possibly Florida. CI-1 ...