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Brown v. City of Camden

July 27, 2006

VINCENT BROWN, ET AL. PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF CAMDEN, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

OPINION

HONORABLE JEROME B. SIMANDLE

This case stems from a traffic stop turned "felony stop" of a vehicle containing a couple on their way to drop off their two young daughters at school. Plaintiffs filed this suit for damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. The matter is before the Court upon Defendants' motion for summary judgment. For reasons expressed below, the Court finds that material factual issues exist precluding the entry of summary judgment as to Defendants George Carlin, Buddy Camp and Vincent McCalla. Accordingly, Defendants' motion will be denied as to those Defendants. The Court will grant summary judgment, however, in favor of Defendants City of Camden and Robert Allenbach.

I. BACKGROUND

On March 26, 2001, at 7:30 A.M., Plaintiff Vincent Brown was driving in Camden with his wife, Laura Brown, and their eleven and twelve year old daughters, Alexis and Aleilya, when they were pulled over by Officers Vincent McCalla and Buddy Camp of the Camden Police Department. It was snowing that morning, so Plaintiff had the vehicle's windshield wipers turned on. According to the Officers, though, the vehicles headlights were turned off in violation of New Jersey motor vehicle law.*fn1

Therefore, according to the officers, they decided to pull over Plaintiffs' car. (Camp Dep. Tr. at 29:6-8.)

The vehicle being driven by Plaintiff was a blue Chevy Tahoe with temporary license plates, tinted rear windows, and standard hubcaps. (Pls. Ex. E.) The officers claim that Plaintiffs' vehicle matched the description of a car belonging to a murder suspect, Bernard Murray. In fact, according to Defendants, just that morning at the daily role call Sergeant Carlin had given them the description of Murray's car, a "dark-colored," possibly dark blue or black, four dour Chevy Tahoe.*fn2 (Carlin Dep. Tr. at 21:2-8; Camp Dep. Tr. at 37:9-23.) According to McCalla, Carlin also informed the officers that the vehicle carrying Murray had "rims."*fn3 Finally, the officers claim that they were told that Murray frequented the East/North Camden area. (Camp Dep. Tr. at 40:13-16.)

Based on the above, the officers followed the Brown's SUV one of them contacted Sergeant Carlin by radio to relay the vehicle's description. Carlin agreed that the description of Plaintiffs' vehicle matched the one possibly containing Murray. Accordingly, Carlin advised the officers to pull the car over. Officers Camp and McCalla then proceeded to activate their police van's overhead lights, signaling to Plaintiff to pull over to the side of the road, which Plaintiff did. According to Plaintiffs, Officer McCalla then approached the driver's side of the vehicle as Officer Camp approached the passenger side, both with guns drawn. (Mr. Brown Dep. Tr. at 31:15-17.) Defendants dispute that their guns were drawn when they first approached the vehicle.

Once to the driver's side, Officer McCalla asked Mr. Brown for his drivers license and insurance information. (Id. at 30:11-14.) At the same time, Camp approached Mrs. Brown's side of the vehicle with his weapon pointed at her. Plaintiffs maintain that Mrs. Brown then rolled down her window and pleaded for the officer to put to down the gun as there were children in the car. (Id. at 31:10-14; Mrs. Brown Dep. Tr. at 91:18-20.) The officers maintain that they were unable to confirm the number or description of the passengers in the back seat as the rear windows were heavily tinted and the sky was overcast.

After obtaining Plaintiff's documentation the officers returned to their police van. Camp and McCalla contend that while in their vehicle they again radioed Sergeant Carlin, who then advised them to conduct a "felony stop." (Camp Dep. Tr. at 52:15-25; McCalla Dep. Tr. at 53:9-17; 56:22-57:6.) Meanwhile, Sergeant Carlin had proceeded to the area where the Browns were stopped. By that time, according to Carlin, at least a half dozen other police vehicles had arrived to the scene. (Carlin Tr. at 33:12-21; 35:5-10.) As Carlin was arriving, Officers Camp and McCalla had begun to effectuate the "felony stop." According to Plaintiffs, the officers first ordered Mr. Brown from the vehicle over a loudspeaker from the van. (Mrs. Brown Dep. Tr. at 99:23-100-4; Mr. Brown Dep. Tr. at 38:8-11.) Plaintiff was then ordered to throw the car keys on the ground and walk backwards towards the patrol wagon with his hands behind his head. (Id.) According to Mr. Brown, a gun was held to his head as we was handcuffed and then placed in the back of the wagon. The same procedure was then followed for Mrs. Brown.

Plaintiffs claim that after the couple was secured in the back of the wagon, Officer McCalla approached the Tahoe with his gun drawn, opened the car door, and saw the two young girls in the back seat. Defendants maintain that as Mrs. Brown reached the back of the patrol van, she was identified by one of the officers on the scene. According to the officers she then, for the first time, informed them that her children were in the car. (Camp Dep. Tr. at 62:13-23.) The officers then confirmed that the children were in the back seat, and then Mr. and Mrs. Brown were released from custody. (Mr. Brown Dep. Tr. at 46:2-48:4; Aleilya Brown Dep. Tr. at 141:23-143:7; Alexis Brown Dep. Tr. at 154:24-156:3.)

At 7:57 A.M., the officers issued a summons to Plaintiff for failing to turn on the headlights while operating the windshield wipers in violation of N.J.S.A. 39:3-47(a).*fn4 (Def. Ex. F.)

Eventually, Plaintiffs maintain, the ticket was dismissed by the Camden Municipal Court because the court concluded that Plaintiffs' vehicle was equipped with properly functioning daytime running lights on March 26, 2001. (See Mrs. Brown Dep. Tr. at 54:3-9; Pls. Ex. E.)

Plaintiffs filed this Complaint on March 25, 2003 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In Counts I and II Plaintiff allege illegal seizure and excessive force claims against Defendants Camp, McCalla and Carlin. In Count III Plaintiffs claim that Defendants City of Camden and Robert Allenbach, Chief of Police, should be held liable under Section 1983 for failure to properly train, supervise and discipline officers, and for implementing an unconstitutional policy of racial profiling and excessive force.*fn5

Defendants subsequently filed this motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when the materials of record "show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In deciding whether there is a disputed issue of material fact, the court must view the evidence in favor of the non-moving party by extending any reasonable favorable inference to that party; in other words, "the nonmoving party's evidence 'is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [that party's] favor.'" Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 552 (1999) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986)). The threshold inquiry is whether there are "any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact ...


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