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Gibson v. Superintendent of New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety - Division of State Police

June 14, 2005


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil No. 02-cv-05470) District Judge: Honorable Robert B. Kugler

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Van Antwerpen, Circuit Judge


Argued February 11, 2005

Before: BARRY, FUENTES, and VAN ANTWERPEN, Circuit Judges


Emory Gibson, Jr. appeals from two orders of the District Court which effectively dismissed his § 1983 action in its entirety. According to Gibson, in 1992 he was traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike when he was unlawfully stopped, searched and arrested by two New Jersey State Police Troopers. Gibson alleges that the stop and search were part of a pattern of racially discriminatory law enforcement practices undertaken by the New Jersey State Police. Ten years after his initial stop and eight years after his conviction, Gibson was released from prison after newly obtained evidence suggested that his initial stop was tainted by racial animus. He subsequently brought this action against the New Jersey State Police ("NJSP") Superintendent; *fn2 J.W. Pennypacker and Sean Reilly,*fn3 the individual NJSP Troopers who originally arrested him; former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero; former Deputy Attorneys General Ronald Susswein, John Fahy, and George Rover; *fn4 the New Jersey Turnpike Authority; the Treasurer of New Jersey; and several unnamed "John Doe" individuals who allegedly aided in the illegal search or the suppression of evidence.

In federal claims brought under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, Gibson alleged that the defendants violated his right of access to the courts, his Fourth Amendment right to freedom from illegal search and seizure, and his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law. He also alleges that the defendants conspired to violate these rights and conspired against him on account of his race.

Additionally, Gibson brought several claims under state law. The District Court dismissed all of the claims as set forth below.


The following facts are taken from Gibson's Complaint. Because we are reviewing the grant of a motion to dismiss, we take these allegations as true and view them in a light most favorable to the appellant. Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002).

Emory Gibson, Jr. is an African-American male. On October 28, 1992, Gibson was sitting in the rear seat of a vehicle occupied by two other African-American men, traveling southbound on the New Jersey Turnpike. At approximately 4:20 a.m., New Jersey State Police Troopers Pennypacker and Reilly pulled their marked NJSP cruiser behind the car in which Gibson was traveling and activated the cruiser's warning lights; the driver promptly pulled over. Without a warrant, the Troopers searched the vehicle and then searched and arrested Gibson. Gibson and the other occupants of the vehicle were charged with various offenses after the Troopers discovered illegal drugs in the car. Gibson alleges that the Troopers stopped the car and conducted the search without probable cause.

Gibson was tried on April 20 and 21, 1994. He was found guilty on two counts of drug-related offenses and sentenced to fifty years in prison. At trial, the prosecution relied on the testimony of Troopers Pennypacker and Reilly, as well as Dennis Tully, who testified as an expert on drug interdiction and valuation. According to Gibson, impeachment evidence existed at that time which showed that Trooper Tully had a "monthly African American arrest rate on the Turnpike." (Appellant App. at A–93.)

In 1996, the Superior Court of New Jersey in State v. Soto, 734 A.2d 350, 360 (N.J. Super. Ct. Law Div. 1996), determined that NJSP Troopers were racially profiling drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike and targeting African-Americans for stops. Citing Soto, Gibson filed a petition for post-conviction relief and requested discovery on February 18, 1999. On February 8, 2000, the Superior Court, Law Division, denied the request for post-conviction relief, in part because Gibson did not allege sufficient evidence of racial profiling or the illegality of his stop and arrest.

Later, on January 29, 2002, the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, reversed Gibson's conviction because exculpatory material uncovered in November 2000 tended to show that he was illegally stopped and arrested. On April 19, 2002, Gibson's Motion to Dismiss and Vacate the Conviction of Plaintiff was granted because there was a colorable basis to believe that Gibson was stopped and arrested as a result of unlawful racial profiling.

On November 14, 2002, Gibson filed a Complaint in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, in which he made six claims. Counts One, Two and Three were brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In Count One, Gibson claimed that the defendants' unconstitutional acts denied him effective access to the courts and resulted in his unconstitutional conviction and imprisonment. In Count Two, he sought injunctive relief from the NJSP Superintendent, *fn5 and in Count Three, he alleged that the defendants "conspired to violate Plaintiff's civil rights, namely the rights to meaningful access to the courts and the right to be free from unconstitutional conviction and imprisonment." (Appellant App. at A-103.) In Count Four, Gibson alleged that the defendants were liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 for conspiring "to violate the civil rights of Plaintiff herein based on his race." (Id. at A-103 to A-104.) Counts Five and Seven (there was no Count Six) were state law claims.

Appellees moved to dismiss all of the counts, arguing that they were time-barred, and that several of the defendants were entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, prosecutorial immunity and qualified immunity. On December 12, 2003, the District Court dismissed as timebarred Gibson's "constitutional claims for selective enforcement and failure to train (as well as any claims that reasonably can be construed to plead violations of the Fourth Amendment and malicious prosecution)." (Appellant App. at A-36.) The District Court also dismissed the claim against the defendant Treasurer of New Jersey and ordered further briefing and argument on the issue of qualified immunity as to the surviving claims. On February 24, 2004, the District Court dismissed the remaining claims. Gibson timely appealed.

Consistent with this opinion and the Judge Fuentes's Opinion, we will reverse, and allow Gibson to proceed with his claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in Count One alleging that the Troopers unconstitutionally searched and seized Gibson in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and subjected him to selective enforcement of the laws in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We will also reinstate the 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 conspiracy claims in Counts Three and Four, and the state law claims in Counts Five and Seven.


The District Court had subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (2005). This Court has jurisdiction over the final order and judgment pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (2005). We exercise plenary review over both the District Court's dismissal of a claim on statute of limitations grounds under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) and its grant of qualified immunity. Leveto v. Lapina, 258 F.3d 156, 161 (3d Cir. 2001).


The nature of Gibson's multiple claims in Count One is somewhat difficult to ascertain so we begin by examining the Complaint. *fn6 Count One was brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 which provides a cause of action against a person who, acting under color of state law, deprives another of a constitutional or federal right. Thus, to state a claim under § 1983, Gibson must indicate: (1) of what constitutional or federal right he was deprived, and (2) how he was deprived of that right under color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2005); Basista v. Weir, 340 F.2d 74, 79 (3d Cir. 1965).

The first step in evaluating a § 1983 claim is to identify the specific constitutional right infringed. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271 (1994) (Rehnquist, C.J., plurality opinion). It appears that in Count One, Gibson's Complaint alleges two main claims of constitutional deprivation: (1) defendants denied Gibson access to the courts by suppressing exculpatory information, and (2) defendants violated Gibson's "right to be free from an unconstitutional conviction and imprisonment." (Appellant App. at A-100 to A-101.) The Complaint then alleges a litany of constitutional violations which underlie the main claims. Id. at A-101 to A-102.

The main claim of denial of access to the courts is well recognized and actionable. Christopher, 536 U.S. at 415 n.12. However, standing alone without more supporting detail, Gibson's other main claims concerning his right to be free from unconstitutional conviction and imprisonment *fn7 appear to be more in the nature of legal conclusions or merely a description of the type of harm Gibson allegedly suffered. Recognizing this, the District Court read Count One of the Complaint as alleging a denial of access to the courts claim, as well as individual claims under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. (Appellant App. at A-20 to A-28.) Specifically, Gibson claimed that his constitutional rights were violated: (A) when Troopers Pennypacker and Reilly searched and seized Gibson on the New Jersey Turnpike in violation of the Fourth Amendment, (B) when the Troopers racially profiled Gibson and thereby subjected him to discriminatory enforcement of the law in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, (C) when the Troopers and Attorney General defendants denied him effective access to the courts by suppressing exculpatory evidence, and (D) when the NJSP and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority ("NJTA") failed to properly train and discipline the Troopers in question. Id. The parties did not dispute this characterization of the Complaint in their briefs or at oral argument, thus we will interpret the Complaint in this way.

A. Fourth Amendment Claims

We begin by addressing Gibson's claim that the Troopers violated his Fourth Amendment rights. *fn8 The District Court concluded that all of the various ways by which Gibson alleges his Fourth Amendment rights were violated were barred by the statute of limitations.

An action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is subject to the state statute of limitations that governs actions for personal injury. Cito v. Bridgewater Township Police Dep't, 892 F.2d 23, 25 (3d Cir. 1989). "In New Jersey that statute is N.J.S.A. 2A: 14-2, which provides that an action for an injury to the person caused by a wrongful act, neglect, or default, must be convened within two years of accrual of the cause of action." Id. (quoting Brown v. Foley, 810 F.2d 55, 56 (3d Cir. 1987)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although state law governs the limitations period, it is federal law that governs the accrual of § 1983 claims. Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d 120, 126 (3d Cir. 1998).

Generally, "the limitations period begins to run from the time when the plaintiff knows or has reason to know of the injury which is the basis of the section 1983 action." Id. at 126 (quoting Genty v. Resolution Trust Corp., 937 F.2d 899, 919 (3d Cir. 1991)) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, this rule does not apply when a plaintiff brings a § 1983 action that, if successful, would demonstrate that the plaintiff's underlying criminal conviction or imprisonment is invalid. Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486-87 (1994). In such a situation, no cause of action arises until the conviction or sentence is invalidated, and the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the time of such invalidation. Id. at 489. In the case before us, the arrest, trial and other multiple alleged illegal acts all occurred more than two years before this suit was brought, and therefore all would be barred by the two-year statute of limitations. The dispute between the parties is whether or not these claims are saved from being untimely because they fall under the Heck delayed accrual rule, and did not accrue until Gibson's conviction was set aside in 2002.

In Heck v. Humphrey, Heck brought a § 1983 suit while his criminal appeal was pending. Id. at 479. Heck alleged numerous constitutional violations in the conduct of his trial, and requested compensatory and punitive money damages, but no injunctive relief. Id. The Supreme Court concluded that such a claim was not cognizable under § 1983 until Heck's conviction or sentence had been invalidated, not because there was an exhaustion requirement, but simply because no claim existed until that time. Id. at 489. As the Court explained, "to recover damages for allegedly unconstitutional conviction or imprisonment, or for other harm caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid, a § 1983 plaintiff must prove that the conviction or sentence has been reversed on direct appeal, expunged by executive order, declared invalid by a state tribunal authorized to make such determination, or called into question by a federal court's issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254." Id. at 486-87 (footnote omitted).

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court in Heck was careful to explain that not all constitutional claims arising from an arrest and prosecution are the kind that are subject to the deferred accrual rule. Some claims would not necessarily invalidate a conviction. The Court laid particular emphasis on Fourth Amendment claims in footnote seven, explaining:

For example, a suit for damages attributable to an allegedly unreasonable search may lie even if the challenged search produced evidence that was introduced in a state criminal trial resulting in the § 1983 plaintiff's still-outstanding conviction. Because of doctrines like independent source and inevitable discovery, see Murray v. United States, 487 U.S. 533, 539 (1988), and especially harmless error, see Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 307-308 (1991), such a § 1983 action, even if successful, would not necessarily imply that the plaintiff's conviction was unlawful. In order to recover compensatory damages, however, the § 1983 plaintiff must prove not only that the search was unlawful, but that it caused him actual, compensable injury, see Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U.S. 299, 308 (1986), which, we hold today, does not encompass the "injury" of being convicted and imprisoned (until his conviction has been overturned).

Heck, 512 U.S. at 487.

This Court dealt with the applicability of Heck in Montgomery v. De Simone, 159 F.3d at 126. In Montgomery, the plaintiff Rosemary Montgomery was arrested and charged with speeding, drunk driving, and refusing to take a breathalyzer test. Id. at 123. At her municipal hearing, she introduced evidence that she was not drunk or speeding, and that at the time of her arrest, the arresting officer had propositioned her. Id. at 122-23. Although a municipal judge found her guilty, later the Superior Court of New Jersey, in a trial de novo, reversed the convictions. Id. at 123. After her convictions were overturned, she brought an action against the arresting officer in the United States ...

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