United States District Court, D. New Jersey
May 10, 2005.
MARVIN WATSON, Plaintiff,
JOHN DOE, et al., Defendants.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOEL PISANO, District Judge
Plaintiff, Marvin Watson ("Watson"), confined at the U.S.P.
Allenwood in White Deer, Pennsylvania, seeks to bring this action
in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915. Based on
plaintiff's affidavit of indigence and his prison account
statements, it appears that plaintiff is qualified to proceed as
an indigent. Therefore, the Court will grant plaintiff's
application to proceed in forma pauperis and direct the
Clerk of the Court to file the Complaint without pre-payment of
the filing fee. Having reviewed the Complaint to identify cognizable claims
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2) and 1915A, the Court
concludes that the Complaint should be dismissed as time-barred.
Watson brings this civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983
against New Jersey State Trooper John Doe of the New Jersey State
Police, and against the State of New Jersey and the New Jersey
State Police. (Complaint, Caption). The following factual
allegations are taken from the Complaint and are accepted as true
for purposes of this review.
On or about October 18, 1995, plaintiff alleges that the
vehicle in which he was a passenger was stopped and searched by
Trooper Doe for no apparent reason other than the fact that the
occupants of the vehicle were Black. As a result of this
allegedly unlawful stop and search, Watson was arrested and
convicted. The conviction was reversed and vacated by a New
Jersey court on March 11, 1999.
Watson seeks damages in the amount of $250,000.00.
II. STANDARDS FOR A SUA SPONTE DISMISSAL
The Prison Litigation Reform Act ("PLRA"), Pub.L. No. 104-134,
§§ 801-810, 110 Stat. 1321-66 to 1321-77 (April 26, 1996),
requires a district court to review a complaint in a civil action
in which a prisoner is proceeding in forma pauperis or
seeks redress against a governmental employee or entity. The
Court is required to identify cognizable claims and to sua sponte
dismiss any claim that is frivolous, malicious, fails to state a
claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief
from a defendant who is immune from such relief.
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B) and 1915A.*fn1
In determining the sufficiency of a pro se complaint, the
Court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the
plaintiff. Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520-21 (1972);
United States v. Day, 969 F.2d 39, 42 (3d Cir. 1992). The Court
must "accept as true all of the allegations in the complaint and
all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view
them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Morse v.
Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997). The
Court need not, however, credit a pro se plaintiff's "bald
assertions" or "legal conclusions." Id. III. SECTION 1983 LIABILITY
Watson brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging
violations of his constitutional rights. Section 1983 provides in
Every person who, under color of any statute,
ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State
or Territory . . . subjects, or causes to be
subjected, any citizen of the United States or other
person within the jurisdiction thereof to the
deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities
secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable
to the party injured in an action at law, suit in
equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . .
Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must
allege, first, the violation of a right secured by the
Constitution or laws of the United States and, second, that the
alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting
under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42
(1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250
, 1255-56 (3d
Here, Watson names the New Jersey State Police and the State of
New Jersey as defendants. However, the Eleventh
Amendment*fn2 protects states and their agencies and departments from suit in
federal court regardless of the type of relief sought. Pennhurst
State School and Hospital v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984).
Similarly, absent consent by a state, the Eleventh Amendment bars
federal court suits for money damages against state officers in
their official capacities. See Kentucky v. Graham,
473 U.S. 159, 169 (1985). Section 1983 does not override a state's
Eleventh Amendment immunity. Quern v. Jordan, 440 U.S. 332
In addition, neither states, nor governmental entities that are
considered arms of the state for Eleventh Amendment purposes, nor
state officers sued in their official capacities for money
damages are persons within the meaning of § 1983. Will v.
Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 64, 70-71 and n. 10
(1989); Grabow v. Southern State Correctional Facility,
726 F.Supp. 537, 538-39 (D.N.J. 1989) (the New Jersey Department of
Corrections is not a person under § 1983). Thus, all damages
claims asserted by Watson against the State of New Jersey and the
New Jersey State Police must be dismissed with prejudice for
failure to state a claim, pursuant to
28 U.S.C. §§ 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii) and 1915A(b)(1).
As to the remaining defendant, State Trooper John Doe, the
Court construes the allegations of the Complaint most liberally
for the pro se plaintiff, and finds that the Complaint
alleges a claim of racial profiling and false arrest in violation of the
Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. However, the Complaint is
time-barred and will be dismissed.
A. Racial Profiling/Selective Enforcement
To state a racial profiling claim based on selective
enforcement of motor vehicle laws which violate the equal
protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, plaintiffs must
allege that (1) they are members of a protected class and that
similarly situated suspects of an unprotected class were treated
dissimilarly, i.e., violated the law and were not arrested; and
(2) the officer's decision to arrest was based at least partially
on racial animus. See White v. Williams, 179 F. Supp.2d 405,
418 n. 5 (D.N.J. 2002) (citing United States v. Armstrong,
517 U.S. 456, 465 (1996)); see also Carrasca v. Pomeroy,
313 F.3d 828, 834 (3d Cir. 2002) (to prevail on racial profiling
claim, plaintiffs must show "that the challenged law enforcement
practice had a discriminatory effect and was motivated by a
discriminatory purpose"); Bradley v. United States,
299 F.3d 197, 205 (3d Cir. 2002); Andrews v. City of Philadelphia,
895 F.2d 1469, 1478 (3d Cir. 1990).
Here, Watson alleges that he and the other occupants in his
vehicle were targeted for an unlawful stop on the basis of their
race. However, he does not assert any factual allegations to show
the existence of a profile account or summary of traffic stops made by the New Jersey State Police or State Trooper John
Doe during the relevant period. Nor does Watson allege any facts
to show that Trooper Doe did not stop cars with white drivers or
occupants operating in the same area over the same time period.
Nevertheless, the Complaint suggests that Watson's conviction was
reversed based on illegal racial profiling.
Thus, reading the Complaint in a light most favorable to
plaintiff on this sua sponte screening, it would appear that
Watson might be able to support a claim of racial profiling, if
the claim was not time-barred, as discussed infra.
B. False Arrest, False Imprisonment and Unlawful Search
Watson also claims that he was falsely arrested based on the
illegal racial profiling that led to the search of the vehicle in
which he was a passenger. The Fourth Amendment to the United
States Constitution provides that "The right of the people to be
secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and
seizures, shall not be violated." A seizure triggering Fourth
Amendment protection occurs when a government actor "by means of
physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained
the liberty of a citizen." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 n. 16
(1968). To determine the reasonableness of a seizure, a court
"must balance the nature and quality of the intrusion on the
individual's Fourth Amendment interests against the importance of
the governmental interests alleged to justify the intrusion." United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 703 (1983), quoted in
Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1, 8 (1985) and Graham v.
Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989).
It is well established in the Third Circuit that an arrest
without probable cause is a constitutional violation actionable
under § 1983. See Walmsley v. Philadelphia, 872 F.2d 546 (3d
Cir. 1989) (citing cases); see also, Albright v. Oliver,
510 U.S. 266, 274 (1994) (a section 1983 claim for false arrest
may be based upon an individual's Fourth Amendment right to be
free from unreasonable seizures). Under New Jersey law, false
arrest has been defined as "the constraint of the person without
legal justification." Ramirez v. United States,
998 F. Supp. 425, 434 (D.N.J. 1998) (quoting Fleming v. United Postal
Service, Inc., 604 A.2d 657, 680 (N.J. Law Div. 1992)).
To state a claim for false arrest, a plaintiff must allege two
elements: (1) that there was an arrest; and (2) that the arrest
was made without probable cause. Dowling v. City of
Philadelphia, 855 F.2d 136, 141 (3d Cir. 1988). To establish the
absence of probable cause, a plaintiff must show "that at the
time when the defendant put the proceedings in motion the
circumstances were such as not to warrant an ordinary prudent
individual in believing that an offense had been committed."
Lind v. Schmid, 67 N.J. 255, 262 (1975). "Probable cause . . .
requires more than mere suspicion; however, it does not require that the officer have evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable
doubt." Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 482-83
(3d Cir. 1995). Rather, probable cause exists when the facts and
circumstances are "sufficient to warrant a prudent man in
believing that the defendant had committed or was committing an
offense." Gerstein v. Pugh, 420 U.S. 103, 111 (1975) (quoting
Beck v. State of Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964)); Sharrar v.
Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 817 (3d Cir. 1997).
Moreover "where the police lack probable cause to make an
arrest, the arrestee has a claim under § 1983 for false
imprisonment based on a detention pursuant to that arrest."
Groman v. Manalapan, 47 F.3d 628, 636 (3d Cir. 1995); Palma v.
Atlantic County, 53 F. Supp. 2d 743, 755 (D.N.J. 1999) (citing
Groman). See also Anela v. City of Wildwood,
595 F. Supp. 511, 512 (D.N.J. 1984) (holding a person for any length of time
without legal justification may be a violation of the right to
liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment and thus states a claim of
false imprisonment under § 1983).*fn3 A § 1983 claim for
false arrest typically accrues on the date of the plaintiff's
arrest. See Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 (3d Cir. 1998);
Rose v. Bartle, 871 F.2d 331, 348-51 (3d Cir. 1989).*fn4
Here, it appears that probable cause for Watson's arrest and
imprisonment was lacking because the conviction was reversed and
vacated based on a finding of racial profiling. However, even
though it appears that Watson may be able to state a claim for
both racial profiling and false arrest, this action is
nonetheless time-barred and must be dismissed.
C. The Complaint is Untimely
A court may dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim,
based on a time-bar, where "the time alleged in the statement of
a claim shows that the cause of action has not been brought
within the statute of limitations." Bethel v. Jendoco
Construction Corp., 570 F.2d 1168, 1174 (3d Cir. 1978) (citation
omitted). Although the statute of limitations is an affirmative
defense which may be waived by the defendant, it is appropriate
to dismiss sua sponte under § 1915(e)(2) a pro se civil
rights claim whose untimeliness is apparent from the face of the
Complaint. See, e.g., Pino v. Ryan, 49 F.3d 51, 53 (2d Cir. 1995) (holding, under former § 1915(d) in forma pauperis
provisions, that sua sponte dismissal prior to service of an
untimely claim is appropriate since such a claim "is based on an
indisputably meritless legal theory"); Hall v. Geary County Bd.
of County Comm'rs, 12 Fed. Appx. 855 (10th Cir. 2001) (unpub.)
(applying Pino to current § 1915(e)); Rounds v. Baker,
141 F.3d 1170 (8th Cir. 1998) (unpub.) (same); Johnstone v. United
States, 980 F.Supp. 148 (E.D. Pa. 1997) (same).
Civil rights claims are best characterized as personal injury
actions and are governed by the applicable state's statute of
limitations for personal injury actions. See Wilson v.
Garcia, 471 U.S. 261, 280 (1985). Accordingly, New Jersey's
two-year limitations period on personal injury actions, N.J. STAT.
ANN. § 2A:14-2, governs plaintiff's claims. See Montgomery v.
DeSimone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 & n. 4 (3d Cir. 1998); Cito v.
Bridgewater Township Police Dept., 892 F.2d 23, 25 (3d Cir.
Here, the statute of limitations began to run, at the latest,
when Watson's criminal conviction was reversed and vacated on
March 11, 1999.*fn5 See Sameric Corp. of Delaware v. City of Philadelphia, 142 F.3d 582, 599 (3d Cir. 1998) (a
section 1983 cause of action accrues when the plaintiff knew or
should have known of the injury upon which the action is based).
The Complaint was received by the Court on or about March 1,
2004, and appears to have been dated by plaintiff on December 29,
2003, more than four years after Watson's claim accrued, and more
than two years after the statute of limitations had expired;
therefore, any potential § 1983 claim based on this event is
Moreover, Watson has not asserted facts suggesting any basis
for statutory tolling. See, e.g., N.J. STAT. ANN. § 2A:14-21
(detailing tolling because of minority or insanity); N.J.S.A. §
2A 14-22 (detailing tolling because of nonresidency of persons
liable). New Jersey law also permits "equitable tolling" where
"the complainant has been induced or tricked by his adversary's
misconduct into allowing the filing deadline to pass," or where a
plaintiff has "in some extraordinary way" been prevented from
asserting his rights, or where a plaintiff has timely asserted
his rights mistakenly by either defective pleading or in the
wrong forum. See Freeman v. State, 347 N.J. Super. 11, 31
(N.J.Super. App. Div.) (citations omitted), certif. denied,
172 N.J. 178 (2002). "However, absent a showing of intentional
inducement or trickery by a defendant, the doctrine of equitable
tolling should be applied sparingly and only in the rare
situation where it is demanded by sound legal principles as well as the interests
of justice." Id.
When state tolling rules contradict federal law or policy, in
certain limited circumstances, federal courts can turn to federal
tolling doctrine. See Lake v. Arnold, 232 F.3d 360, 370 (3d
Cir. 2000). Under federal law, equitable tolling is appropriate
in three general scenarios:
(1) where a defendant actively misleads a plaintiff
with respect to her cause of action; (2) where the
plaintiff has been prevented from asserting her claim
as a result of other extraordinary circumstances; or
(3) where the plaintiff asserts her claims in a
timely manner but has done so in the wrong forum.
Id. n. 9.
Here, the Complaint alleges no extraordinary circumstances that
would permit equitable tolling under either New Jersey or federal
law. There are no allegations that Watson was unaware of his
rights in 1999, nor are there any allegations that defendants
prevented Watson in any way from timely filing his Complaint
until more than four years after his claim had accrued.
Therefore, because it is clear on the face of the Complaint that
Watson's racial profiling and false arrest claims are
time-barred, and no extraordinary circumstances are alleged to
warrant equitable tolling, the claim will be dismissed with
prejudice as untimely. V. CONCLUSION
For the reasons stated above, the Complaint will be dismissed
in its entirety as time-barred. An appropriate Order follows.