On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Camden County, Docket No. L-8421-05.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Telephonically Argued: June 15, 2010
Before Judges Cuff and C.L. Miniman.
This appeal is a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Plaintiffs attempted to leave a motel just as the police arrived to intercept a large interstate transfer of marijuana. Plaintiffs contend the police treated them with undue and unnecessary force; the State argues the police's treatment of plaintiffs was entirely reasonable under the circumstances. The motion judge granted defendants' motion for summary judgment in its entirety. We affirm in part, and reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.
Initially, we are constrained to observe that our review is hampered by two factors. First, the briefs and appendices do not demonstrate to our satisfaction that this court had been provided with the same record as the motion judge. We provided counsel an opportunity pre- and post-argument to review the motion record and provide to us everything submitted to the motion judge. We received some documents before oral argument and others after oral argument. Both counsel assure us we now have all documents submitted in support of and in opposition to defendants' summary judgment motion.
The second factor that inhibits our review is the absence of any findings of fact or conclusions of law in support of this order. In order to meaningfully perform our appellate review of the actions or decision of a motion judge, the judge must make sufficient findings and conclusions so that we may get a sense of what was decided and why. Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 570 (1980). Most significantly, Rule 1:6-2 and Rule 1:7-4 require a trial judge to accompany all opinions with findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Pressler and Verniero, Current New Jersey Court Rules, comment 2.6 on R. 1:6-2 (2011) (referring to R. 1:7-4). "Rule 1:7-4 requires a judge to provide findings of fact and conclusions of law on every motion decided by a written order that is appealable by right." Fodero v. Fodero, 355 N.J. Super. 168, 179 (App. Div. 2002). Also, Rule 2:5-1(b) specifically mandates that findings and conclusions by a trial judge must be made, particularly when an appeal has been filed. Justice Pollock cogently stated in Curtis, supra, 83 N.J. at 570, "[n]aked conclusions do not satisfy the purpose of R. 1:7-4. Rather, the trial court must state clearly its factual findings and correlate them with the relevant legal conclusions." We are constrained to remind the motion judge of his obligation in this regard. Notwithstanding these omissions, we address the merits of the appeal.
In reviewing the order granting defendants' motion for summary judgment, we apply the same standard as the motion judge. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co. v. Boylan, 307 N.J. Super. 162, 167 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 154 N.J. 608 (1998). A moving party is entitled to summary judgment if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact in the record. R. 4:46-2. In deciding a summary judgment motion, we must apply the standard articulated in Brill v. Guardian Life Insurance Co., 142 N.J. 520 (1995):
[A] determination whether there exists a "genuine issue" of material fact that precludes summary judgment requires the motion judge to consider whether the competent evidential materials presented, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, are sufficient to permit a rational factfinder to resolve the alleged disputed issue in favor of the non-moving party. [Id. at 540.]
Therefore, we must assume plaintiffs' version of the facts is true and give plaintiffs the benefit of all favorable inferences. Id. at 536. However, a court "may pick and choose inferences from the evidence to the extent that 'a miscarriage of justice under the law' is not created." Ibid.; R. 4:49-1(a). To prevail on a summary judgment motion, defendants must show that plaintiffs' claims were so deficient as to warrant dismissal of their complaint. Butkera v. Hudson River Sloop "Clearwater," Inc., 300 N.J. Super. 550, 557 (App. Div. 1997).
The facts taken in the light most favorable to plaintiffs reveal that on April 16, 2004, plaintiff Rhasun Allah stopped by the Motel 6 in Maple Shade to visit his cousin, plaintiff Kerry Fletcher. Fletcher had been staying at the motel between the expiration of the lease on his apartment and the closing on a new home in Mount Ephraim. Allah arrived between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. to visit Fletcher. Allah parked his car near the motel office. After a short visit, Fletcher offered to drive Allah to his car.
Unbeknownst to plaintiffs, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force planned a major drug raid on a room at the motel. Their target was Dwayne Valentine, a suspected drug distributor. The HIDTA task force had received information that two unidentified individuals from Georgia would deliver a large shipment of marijuana to Valentine at the motel on April 16, 2004.
At approximately 9:15 a.m., Fletcher and Allah left Fletcher's room and entered Fletcher's car. Just as Fletcher started to back out of his parking space, the HIDTA team arrived at the motel. An SUV driven by defendant Sergeant Alva Grimes blocked Fletcher's path. Fletcher testified he was not immediately aware that his path had been blocked. He was aware, however, that his cousin was tapping his leg with some urgency.
Allah testified he saw an SUV block their path and observed a man exit the SUV and point a gun at them. At the time, he did not know the man pointing the gun at him was a police officer. He described the scene as follows:
And I tapped [Fletcher] on his leg with my left hand; I couldn't talk, but I was telling him, you know, don't move this car. You know, I was just -- I didn't say it verbally, but I was -- that's the reason why I was tapping him on leg, because I seen that someone had a gun pointed at us.
At the same time, Allah also observed people "scattering" and "scrambling" and "running in different directions" throughout the parking lot. As the officer, later identified as Sergeant Grimes, pointed a gun at Allah, another officer opened the passenger door, grabbed his arm and removed him forcefully from the car. This officer, later identified as defendant Lieutenant
M. Mangold, wore a jacket with law enforcement insignia on it. Once Allah was removed from the car, Mangold handcuffed him. Mangold escorted him to the front of the car by the driver's side. Defendant Grimes objected to the proximity of Allah and Fletcher, so Grimes "pulled" Allah to a car parked adjacent to Fletcher's car. Grimes intervened stating, "I'll take it from here," and ordered Allah to sit on the hood of the car. Allah testified he acquiesced but had difficulty mounting the hood due to his handcuffs and the tool belt he wore.*fn1 Allah testified that Grimes threatened him with physical harm, if he did not stay seated on the hood of the car. Allah recounted the exchange with Grimes as follows:
So I kept sliding off as he was putting me on there. And he said, do you think I'm playing with you? He says, get your ass up on the car. And I said, I got a tool belt on and I'm handcuffed, you know, I'm trying, you know. I got up on the car.
And, you know, I was kind of tilted awkwardly on the car and I slid off again. And he stepped up in my face and said, do you think I'm playing with you? He says, I'll kill you. I'll kill you out here, he says. Do you think I'm playing with you? He says, I'm not a rookie, he said, I've been doing this a long time and I can tell if somebody's lying to me and you keep rocking on the car like you want to run or something like that. I'll kill you, he said, I'll kill you, you know.
Allah recalls being questioned by both defendants Grimes and Mangold. As Allah tried to remain seated as instructed on the hood of an adjacent car, Grimes questioned him about his presence at the Motel 6 and his knowledge of Fletcher. Allah invited Grimes to reach into his pocket and inspect his driver's license because "you'll see, you know, I'm not the person you're looking for." Grimes recorded Allah's name and address in a notebook, and testified that he felt "very, very paranoid" due to the uncertainty of the situation.
Defendant Grimes admitted he exited the SUV from the driver's side with a "submachine gun," and pointed the gun at plaintiffs. Fletcher testified that as Grimes approached them, he screamed "Get the fuck out of the car." Fletcher stated that Grimes "snatched" him by his left arm as he worked to release his seat belt, "forcefully removed him from the vehicle," and "slam[med]" him into the side of the car door. Fletcher also testified that Grimes "rip[ped] both [of his] arms back," meaning Grimes "pulled them as hard as he could" in order to place handcuffs on him. This was the first time Fletcher realized that Grimes might be a police officer. Fletcher also testified Grimes pointed a gun at his back. When Fletcher attempted to ask Grimes why he was being detained, Grimes responded, "Shut the fuck up."
As Grimes had Fletcher pinned against the car, Grimes inquired why he was in the Motel 6 parking lot. Fletcher responded he was a guest, but Grimes did not believe him. Grimes informed Fletcher he should cooperate with him. Grimes asked for identification and removed Fletcher's wallet from his front pocket. Grimes then left Fletcher standing next to his car for two or three minutes.
Mangold was nearby and asked Fletcher what he had in his truck. Fletcher responded, "You are free to take a look at anything you want to." Mangold denied searching Fletcher's car because they had not executed a consent to search. Fletcher also testified he permitted the police to search his room.
After Grimes obtained both plaintiffs' drivers' licenses, he contacted the Gloucester Township Police Department to check for outstanding warrants. Allah testified that this process took ninety minutes. After the call, Grimes returned, removed the handcuffs, and informed Allah he was ...