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Verelli v. City of Garfield

December 6, 2006


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


Defendants City of Garfield ("the City"), the Garfield Police Department ("Garfield Police"), and the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office ("BCPO") move for summary judgment on Plaintiff Stacey Verelli's*fn1 claims alleging civil rights violations arising from a January 25, 2001 police search of her home.*fn2 For the reasons below, Defendants' motions will be granted.

I. Background

In 1996, Verelli began dating a man named Jerry Shanks. The two lived together for a short period at Verelli's grandmother's home, until later that year when Shanks was convicted and incarcerated for selling narcotics. By 1999, Shanks was released from prison, and he and Verelli resumed their relationship. By then, Verelli had moved into an apartment in the Garfield Housing Authority ("GHA") complex in Garfield, New Jersey, and Shanks would spend at least two to three nights per week there with her.

During this period, Shanks resumed selling illegal narcotics. On November 2, and November 15, 2000, Shanks sold crack cocaine to BCPO undercover Detective Kristen P. Mecionis*fn3 at a location within 500 feet of the GHA complex. Detective Mecionis arranged to buy crack cocaine from Shanks again on January 25, 2001 on a street adjacent to the GHA complex. During their conversation, Shanks told Detective Mecionis to meet him at 7:00 p.m., and that before their meeting, he had to go to his apartment to "pick it up." (Affidavit of Kristen P. Mecionis ("Mecionis Aff.") ¶ 3.) Mecionis interpreted "it" to mean the crack cocaine that Shanks agreed to sell to her. (Id.)

Verelli testified that Shanks entered her apartment that evening about 15 minutes prior to when the police arrived at her door. Shanks went upstairs, and then quickly left the apartment. The BCPO officers monitoring the situation observed Shanks leave Verelli's apartment, and drive to the pre-arranged meeting place where he sold crack cocaine to Detective Mecionis. After receiving a signal from Detective Mecionis, the BCPO officers surrounded Shanks's vehicle in order to arrest him. Shanks exited the car and fled on foot towards the GHA complex, screaming the name "'Stacey' at the top of his lungs." (Affidavit of Anthony Martino ("Martino Aff.") ¶ 3.) BCPO Detective Anthony Martino chased Shanks into the GHA complex, and arrested him before he could reach the front door of Verelli's apartment. (Id.)

Suspecting that Shanks kept drugs inside Verelli's apartment, and that Shanks's screams were intended to warn Verelli to destroy the drugs, the BCPO officers decided to conduct a search. At the time, Verelli was home with her two children, and with a neighbor, Roseanne DeFranco. The officers on the scene knocked on Verelli's door. When Verelli heard the knock she was cooking dinner, so she asked DeFranco if she could open the door. "[W]hen [DeFranco] opened the door," Verelli testified, "to me it seemed about eight or nine people just walked into my house." (Verelli Dep. 56:21-24.)

Standing in Verelli's kitchen, the officers identified themselves as members of the Bergen County Narcotics Task Force, and were dressed in plain clothes with their guns and badges visible. A police officer from the Garfield Police, who was wearing a uniform, accompanied the BCPO officers. BCPO Detective Richie Barbato then informed Verelli that Shanks was arrested for selling drugs, and that because they believed Shanks was keeping drugs there, they wanted to search her apartment. Verelli asked Detective Barbato whether he had a search warrant, or whether she was under arrest. Detective Barbato answered no to both questions. Verelli then replied, "[w]ith all due respect, if I'm not under arrest and if you don't have a search warrant, then you have to get the hell out of my house." (Verelli Dep. 83:21-24.) The officers refused to leave (Verelli Dep. 83:25-13), and Verelli claims that Detective Barbato responded:

We can do this one of two ways. . . . We can notify DYFS (the Department of Youth and Family Services) and we can have your children taken away from you if you don't sit down and willingly sign the consent form, or you can wait here while we go to a judge and a get a search warrant.

(Verelli Dep. 79:14-22, 82:9-23.). After Detective Barbato allegedly made these statements, Verelli claims that she attempted to call her attorney, but one of the officers removed the phone from her hand and hung it up, and told Verelli that she "wasn't calling anybody." (Verelli Dep. 84:15-24.)

Detective Barbato then spoke with Verelli for about a half-hour, in order to convince her to consent to a search of her apartment. Eventually, Verelli told Detective Barbato that she would consent if she could have Billy Ray Kelly, a representative from a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP"), present during the search to ensure that the officers did not plant any evidence in the apartment. The officers agreed, and once Kelly arrived, permitted him and Verelli to speak privately in the living room. Kelly advised Verelli to cooperate and allow the search, and said he would be there to observe and ensure that the officers did not plant evidence in her home.

Verelli then read and signed a consent form given to her by the BCPO officers. She testified that she understood the form, and unequivocally agreed to its terms. From the time the officers arrived, to the time Verelli signed the consent form, approximately 45 minutes to one hour had passed. (Verelli Dep. 109:20-110:3.) While Verelli said she felt "safe" with Kelly present, she thought she "really didn't have any choice but to sign the form," because otherwise the officers "weren't going to leave my house." (Verelli Dep. 95:3-16.)

Eight to ten officers then searched Verelli's apartment for approximately 45 minutes to one hour in the presence of Kelly, Verelli, her grandmother, and youngest child. The officers did not find any drugs in the apartment during their search. Kelly testified that he had no concerns about the way in which the police conducted the search, and that they were polite and explained everything they were doing. (Mecionis Aff., Ex. E, pp. 4-5.) After the search was complete, the officers left Verelli's apartment.

On April 12, 2002, Verelli filed a complaint claiming that the search violated several of her civil rights. The City of Garfield, Garfield Police Department, ...

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