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Delacruz v. Borough of Hillsdale

April 12, 2005

ALBERTO DELACRUZ AND LENITA DELACRUZ, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS AND CROSS-PETITIONERS,
v.
BOROUGH OF HILLSDALE, BOROUGH OF HO-HO-KUS, BOROUGH OF SADDLE RIVER, TOWNSHIP OF WASHINGTON, POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE BOROUGH OF HILLSDALE, POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE BOROUGH OF HO-HO-KUS, POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE TOWNSHIP OF SADDLE RIVER, POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE TOWNSHIP OF WASHINGTON, OFFICER ROBERT LABIANCA, OFFICER FRANK NOVAKOWSKI, SERGEANT ROBERT BREESE, OFFICER EUGENE SCHULTZ AND SERGEANT ROBERT ORR, DEFENDANTS-PETITIONERS AND CROSS-RESPONDENTS,
AND JOHN DOES 1-10 (SAID NAMES BEING FICTITIOUS), DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 365 N.J. Super. 127 (2004).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The Court considers whether the verbal threshold of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), applies to common-law false arrest/false imprisonment claims against police officers, and whether a police officer's subjective good faith raises a defense to causes of action for state law false arrest/false imprisonment and under the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (§ 1983).

In 1997, in an effort to stop a series of burglaries in several neighboring communities in Bergen County, law enforcement officials of the affected towns spearheaded a multi-jurisdictional task force designed to speed up police response time. Once a burglary was reported, the police forces of the contiguous communities would form a cordon around the victimized community in an effort to catch the culprits as they tried to escape.

On October 24, 1997, two burglaries occurred in Saddle River in the early evening. The Saddle River Police Department triggered the task force response, and officers from the surrounding communities formed a cordon around Saddle River's borders. Sergeant Robert Breese of the Saddle River Police Department was responsible for coordinating that evening's law enforcement efforts. Immediately after responding to yet a third burglary call, Sergeant Breese was dispatched to a location approximately one-half mile away from where officers of other township police departments, including Hillsdale, had stopped a white van and detained its occupants.

The white van belonged to plaintiff Alberto DelaCruz, a self-employed air conditioning, heating, ventilation and refrigeration contractor who had just completed two days of work at the home of a Saddle River physician. As DelaCruz and his co-workers left the worksite in the van, Officer Frank Novakowski of the Hillsdale Police Department and an officer of the Washington Township Police Department pulled the van over, apparently believing they had captured the burglars. Officer Novakowski drew his weapon and ordered DelaCruz to get out of the van. DelaCruz complied. DelaCruz was ordered to kneel and Officer Schultz from Ho-Ho-Kus handcuffed him. Although DelaCruz had valid driving credentials and the van's registration and insurance, as well as proof of his work on the doctor's house, the officers handcuffed DelaCruz behind his back and he was face down on the ground when Sergeant Breese arrived. Apparently, DelaCruz was released after he was recognized as the contractor who had been working on the physician's home.

DelaCruz filed an action against the Borough of Hillsdale and other towns, their respective police departments, and named officers contending that rough handling by the officers injured his shoulder and back, for which he sought medical treatment, and that their conduct resulted in emotional injury. DelaCruz asserted that the defendants' actions gave rise to liability under the common law torts of false arrest/false imprisonment or constituted a deprivation of civil rights through state action proscribed by the Federal Civil Rights Act.

At the close of evidence during a May 2002 trial, the judge dismissed, as a matter of law, all of DelaCruz's federal claims under § 1983 against all of the defendants, and all of the state law claims against the municipal defendants. DelaCruz's sole surviving state law claim was that Officers Novakowski and/or Schultz used excessive force, first by placing the handcuffs on DelaCruz and later when they lifted him off the ground while removing the handcuffs. The jury rendered a verdict in favor of DelaCruz and against the officers and awarded $20,000 in compensatory damages. The jury declined to assess any punitive damages. The trial court later awarded $71,195 in attorneys' fees and $3,099 in costs.

The Appellate Division determined that, while the original stop of plaintiff was entitled to qualified immunity, the detention and handcuffing of plaintiff was not. 365 N.J. Super. 127 (App. Div. 2004). As a result, the panel held that plaintiff's § 1983 claims were not barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity. The panel also held that the verbal threshold of the Tort Claims Act does not apply to false arrest/false imprisonment claims. Ultimately, the court remanded for entry of judgment in favor of DelaCruz on the common law false arrest/false imprisonment claims and for trial only on the type and quantum of damages. It cautioned, however, that although DelaCruz was permitted to pursue two separate theories of liability, he was entitled to one recovery.

Defendants sought certification on the issue whether, in the absence of physical or emotional injury, the verbal threshold of the Tort Claims Act bars a claim for false arrest/false imprisonment. DelaCruz cross-petitioned on the single issue whether a good-faith defense is available in a § 1983 claim for false arrest and excessive force. The Court granted both the petition and the cross-petition.

HELD: The Tort Claims Act's verbal threshold applies to common-law false arrest/false imprisonment claims. Furthermore, under N.J.S.A. 59:3-3, a police officer's subjective good-faith belief as to the propriety of his or her actions is irrelevant as to liability for any false arrest or false imprisonment claim. Instead, the only relevant inquiry is whether, on an objective basis, the police officer's actions were proper. Finally, a police officer's subjective good faith belief may not constitute a defense at trial to a claim under the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983, when the police officer's actions are not otherwise shielded from liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity.

1. In finding that the verbal threshold of the Tort Claims Act is not applicable to false arrest/false imprisonment claims, the Appellate Division relied on N.J.S.A. 59:3-3, which states that a public employee"is not liable if he acts in good faith in the execution or enforcement of any law" and that"[n]othing in this section exonerates a public employee from liability for false arrest or false imprisonment." However, the Appellate Division read N.J.S.A. 59:3-3 too broadly. By its unambiguous and specific terms, this provision creates an objective good-faith defense to a claim that a public employee acted improperly in the execution or enforcement of the laws of this State, an objective good-faith defense that does not, in and of itself, exonerate a public employee for false arrest or false imprisonment. (Pp. 14 -- 17).

2. The Appellate Division's broad reading of N.J.S.A. 59:3-3 needlessly eliminates other provisions of the Tort Claims Act applicable to false arrest/false imprisonment claims. The Court endorses the reasoning of Marion v. Borough of Manasquan, 231 N.J. Super. 320, 331-32 (App. Div. 1989), that false arrest/false imprisonment claims against municipalities and their public employees for pain and suffering must first vault the verbal threshold of the Tort Claims Act in order to be compensable. Here, as admitted, DelaCruz's false arrest/false imprisonment claims do not vault the verbal threshold provision, N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), which states that"[n]o damages shall be awarded against a public entity or public employee for pain and suffering resulting from any injury; provided, however, that this limitation on the recovery of damages for pain and suffering shall not apply in cases of permanent loss of a bodily function, permanent disfigurement or dismemberment where the medical treatment expenses are in excess of $3,600.00." (Pp. 17 -- 19).

3. The Court disagrees also with the Appellate Division's decision that the officers are entitled to raise their subjective good faith as a second line of defense to DelaCruz's federal claims under § 1983. Under federal precedent, which governs this claim, a law enforcement officer's state of mind is irrelevant to the issue of liability premised on an unlawful search or seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. When a § 1983 claim is leveled against a law enforcement officer for an alleged deprivation of Fourth Amendment rights, his or her conduct is to be evaluated through an objective lens that focuses on what a reasonable officer would have done under the circumstances. It is only in the narrow band of cases in which a plaintiff files a complaint against a public official alleging a claim that requires proof of wrongful motive, such as malice, that a subjective inquiry is appropriate. That is not the situation here. (Pp. 19 -- 23).

4. The Court is mindful of the extreme circumstances under which law enforcement personnel must operate and are loathe to gauge their behavior solely under the unforgiving glare of perfect hindsight. Thus, if the police officer's actions were objectively reasonable, the officer will be entitled to qualified immunity. In those circumstances where qualified immunity is not available for claims asserted as either common law torts or under the Federal Civil Rights Act because (1) the police officer did not act with probable cause, or (2) in the absence of probable cause, an objectively reasonable police officer would not have believed in its existence, the officer's subjective good faith is relevant only as to the issue of punitive or exemplary damages. (Pp. 23 -- 25).

The judgment of the Appellate Division remanding the matter to the Law Division for trial as to DelaCruz's § 1983 claim is AFFIRMED; the judgment of the Appellate Division remanding DelaCruz's state law claims for entry of judgment of liability and for trial on damages is REVERSED; the matter is REMANDED to the Law Division for entry of judgment in favor of defendants and against DelaCruz on the state law tort claims and for trial as to the § 1983 claims in accordance with this Opinion; and the award of attorneys' fees is VACATED and must abide the result of the trial of the § 1983 claims.

JUSTICE LONG, concurring in part and dissenting in part, agrees with the Court's conclusion that 42 U.S.C. § 1983 renders a police officer's subjective good faith irrelevant to an assessment of liability for false arrest or false imprisonment. Justice Long disagrees, however, with the Court's determination that the verbal threshold applies to state law claims involving false arrest. Because most false arrests do not result in permanent injury, these claims for deprivation of liberty will go unremedied under the Court's analysis.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ZAZZALI, ALBIN and WALLACE join in JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO's opinion. JUSTICE LONG filed a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rivera-soto

Argued September 28, 2004

These cross-appeals require that we address two discrete but related issues: (1) does the verbal threshold of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:9-2(d), apply to common law false arrest/false imprisonment claims against police officers, and (2) does a police officer's subjective good faith raise a defense to causes of actions for state law false arrest/false imprisonment and under the Federal Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 (§ 1983).

We hold that the Tort Claims Act's verbal threshold applies to common law false arrest/false imprisonment claims. We further hold that, under N.J.S.A. 59:3-3, a police officer's subjective good faith belief as to the propriety of his/her actions is irrelevant as to liability for any false arrest or false imprisonment claims. In false arrest/false imprisonment cases, the only relevant inquiry is whether, on an objective basis, the police officer's actions were proper. We also hold that a police officer's subjective good faith belief may not constitute a defense at trial to a § 1983 Federal Civil Rights Act claim when the police officer's actions are not otherwise shielded from liability by the doctrine of qualified immunity.

I.

Starting in early 1997, several neighboring Bergen County communities suffered from a series of burglaries that led local law enforcement officials to believe that their communities were being targeted by a band of professional burglars. Among the affected communities were the Borough of Saddle River, the Borough of Hillsdale, the Borough of Ho-Ho-Kus, and the Township of Washington. In an effort to stem, if not stop, this plague, the Saddle River Police Department, with the assistance of the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office, spearheaded a multi jurisdictional task force designed to speed up the police response time to burglaries as well as to minimize the delays inherent in fractionalized law enforcement efforts that cross municipal boundaries. This task force was to be simple in its operation: once a burglary was reported, the police forces of the contiguous communities would form a cordon around the victimized community in an effort to catch the culprits as they tried to escape.

The early evening of October 24, 1997 brought with it two burglaries in Saddle River, the first one block away from the second. The Saddle River Police Department triggered the task force response, and officers from the surrounding communities of Waldwick, Allendale, Woodcliff Lake, Montvale, Ho-Ho-Kus, Washington Township, Hillsdale, Mahwah, and Ramsey formed a cordon around Saddle River's borders. Also brought in were the services of a helicopter from the Sheriff's Department of neighboring Rockland County.

Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Robert Breese of the Saddle River Police Department was responsible for coordinating that evening's law enforcement efforts. Immediately after responding to yet a third burglary call of that evening, Sergeant Breese was dispatched to a location approximately one-half mile away where officers of the Ho-Ho-Kus, Hillsdale, and Washington Township police departments had stopped a white van and detained its occupants. When Sergeant Breese arrived at the location of the stop, the driver of the white van, plaintiff Alberto DelaCruz, was handcuffed behind his back and face down on the ground.

Plaintiff, then a 45-year-old self-employed air conditioning, heating, ventilation and refrigeration contractor and the married father of three children, had just completed two days of work at the home of plaintiff's customer, a Saddle River physician. As plaintiff and his co-workers were leaving the worksite, the customer returned home and, pulling into the driveway, asked plaintiff, who was driving, in which direction he was heading. When plaintiff explained where he was going, the customer told plaintiff that there was a police checkpoint along that route -- the flashing lights of the checkpoint were visible from the driveway -- and recommended that plaintiff turn in the opposite direction to spare himself what looked like a twenty minute delay. Plaintiff thanked his customer for the suggestion and headed in the opposite direction from the checkpoint.

Shortly after turning in the direction the customer recommended, plaintiff saw the flashing lights of a police car in his rear view mirror. Plaintiff testified at trial as follows:

Q: All right. What happened when you saw the flashing lights?

A: When I saw the flashing lights, I just pulled over right away knowing that a regular police would ask your driver license or insurance. So I pulled over with no hesitation. As soon as he turn his lights on, I pulled over to the right.

Q: What happened after that?

A: Then all of a sudden, I could see this - the police come out of the - - you, he says. Pull out the gun right away. I could see it in my side mirror. And I don't know what to do. I was panicking. My - - both knees were shaking.

Q: How close was the officer to you when you first saw him?

A: He was in - - he was in the side of my truck. You know, it's away - - I would say three feet away from the truck, but it's in the side. I - - you know, because I could see him in my side mirror, and I don't know what to do. He was pointing a gun. So I says - - so he says, driver. He says, open the door. That's how I really, really - - I - - driver, he says, open your window and let your - - raise your left hand and open the door with your right hand.

Q: Do you know which officer was talking to you at that time?

A: I - - he was referring to me, the driver, aiming a gun, was pointing at me through the door. So I says, I don't know what I - - so I told him while I was Officer, what did I do, you know, what did I do. I was keep repeating those words. I says, please. So he says, you, mother f**ker. He says, get out of the truck. You know, so I get more nervous. So a minute after that, there's another cop came over in front of me, you know, or the truck. And they made a big scene. I mean, the lights are on pulsing. So I get more nervous. I don't know what to do. I thought I'm going to be dying, and I was just praying. I says, please, I hope I don't really - - you know, I hope I see my family again.

So as I walk back towards the truck, he says - - and he kept - - please, Officer, I says, please I have my credential on my wallet, my back pocket, please open them up, I have

Q: I'm sorry. I couldn't understand you.

A: I have my wallet, you know, my credentials, pull them out, and I have an invoice for the doctor, would you please call him up, you know. But the policeman don't even want to listen. So I said - - I was walking 'cause I was scared. I don't know what to do. I was - - he says, walk faster. He was cursing. You know, the other guy was blocking the walk. And then he says, kneel down. As soon as I kneel down, he kind of push me. And I says, what did I do. He puts his knees in my back and put the handcuff like that. So I says - - I ...


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