UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
March 30, 2011
SUSAN E. PETTIT, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
STATE OF NEW JERSEY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge
Plaintiffs, Susan E. Pettit (hereinafter "Pettit") and George R. Lopez (hereinafter "Lopez"), allege Defendants, State of New Jersey, New Jersey State Police, Ernest Lucarini (hereinafter "Lucarini"), City of Estell Manor and Mayor of Estell Manor Joseph Venezia, violated their constitutional rights. In response to Plaintiffs' claims, Defendants move for Summary Judgment [Docs. 25 & 26]. For the reasons expressed below, Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment will be granted.*fn1
This case involves very tragic facts and events. On February 13, 2007, Plaintiffs' son, fifteen-year-old Raymond Lopez, was stuck and killed by a vehicle as he walked along Cumberland Avenue in Estell Manor, New Jersey. Shortly after his death, his friends and parents erected a roadside memorial on Cumberland Avenue in the area where Raymond died. On July 1, 2008, public safety concerns prompted Estell Manor Mayor Venezia to order the memorial's removal. Upon learning of the memorial's removal, Lopez went to the Estell Manor public works building and demanded the memorial's reinstatement. After a heated discussion, an employee of Estell Manor assisted Lopez with setting the memorial back where it was previously located on Cumberland Avenue.
When he arrived for work the following day, July 2, 2008, an employee of Estell Manor discovered roofing nails scattered in the parking lot and street in front of the public works garage and municipal building. The employee informed the mayor who, subsequently, called the New Jersey State Police. At approximately 5:56 a.m., New Jersey State Trooper Lucarini*fn3 arrived to investigate the complaint of criminal mischief. During the course of his investigation, Lucarini spoke with both the employee and the Mayor of Estell Manor. He learned "that there had been a problem with the Lopez family the day before over removal of the memorial and they had come to the public works garage demanding it be returned." (Doc. 28, ¶ 13). In furtherance of his investigation into the criminal mischief complaint, Lucarini drove to Plaintiffs' residence to determine whether they had any information regarding the nails thrown in the roadway.
Upon Lucarini's arrival at Plaintiffs' residence, he followed a
split-rail fence to an open driveway entrance and parked his car at
the end of the driveway. Despite Plaintiffs'
contentions, Lucarini did not observe any "no trespassing" signs
posted along the fence line of Plaintiffs' property.*fn4
Lucarini subsequently exited his patrol car and called for
the homeowner. He received no answer. After this failed attempt to
contact Plaintiffs, Lucarini walked up the driveway until he observed
a brown Doberman Pincher on the house porch. Upon seeing Lucarini, the
dog "began barking" at him and moved "off the porch" in his direction.
Id. at ¶ 16. As the dog continued to bark, Lucarini called out again
for the homeowner while he backed down the driveway toward his patrol
car. Prior to reaching his vehicle, Lucarini observed a German
Shepherd "running" along the tree line toward him. Id. at ¶ 17.
Lucarini "commanded" the dog to "heel" and "stop." Id. Despite these
calls, the dog, ironically named Trooper, continued to run toward him.
Trooper then "leaped aggressively" at Lucarini and landed
approximately five feet in front of him. Id. Fearful for his safety,
Lucarini drew his service weapon and "fired three rounds from the
hip-retention position as the dog was about to spring" on him. Id.
Lucarini's shots hit Trooper. Both Trooper and the Doberman Pincher
ran into the woods.
Shortly after the shots were fired, Lopez came out of the house and observed Lucarini "with his gun drawn demanding" that Lopez speak with him. (Doc. 34-2, ¶ 3). Disregarding this command, Lopez reentered his house and phoned the police because he was unsure why Lucarini discharged his firearm on Plaintiffs' property. After phoning the police, Lopez reemerged from his house and screamed "why did you shoot my fucking dog" at Lucarini. (Doc. 28, ¶ 18). The aforementioned comment and Lopez's return to his house promoted Lucarini to conduct a pat-down frisk of Lopez's outer layer of clothing before initiating questioning. The two individuals then discussed the shooting of Trooper and the incident involving the roofing nails at the Estell Manor public works garage and municipal building. Lopez denied any involvement and did not provide any information regarding the scattered nails in the parking lots. During the conversation Lopez and Pettit*fn5 expressed their displeasure regarding the removal of their son's memorial. After Lucarini concluded his questioning, he departed Plaintiffs' residence and left the care of Trooper, the wounded dog, to Plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs subsequently took Trooper to the Animal Hospital of Millville and the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where emergency surgery was performed. Trooper, perhaps true to his name, survived the surgery and recovered from the gunshot wounds.
On July 7, 2008, Plaintiffs filed a complaint with the New Jersey State Police concerning Lucarini's actions. An internal investigation occurred. At the conclusion of the investigation, New Jersey State Police Major Daniel Cosgrove (hereinafter "Cosgrove") concluded that "the shooting of the dog is unfortunate," but Lucarini "was lawfully conducting an investigation when he was about to be attacked by a dog" and "used his duty weapon in self defense to prevent serious injury to himself." (Doc. 34-4, Exhibit 4). Cosgrove also determined Lucarini's frisk of Lopez was "reasonable" based upon the "circumstances" of the incident. Id. Approximately one year later, on June 25, 2009, Plaintiffs filed their Complaint in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Atlantic County. On July 28, 2009, Defendants removed this action to federal court. Plaintiffs amended their Complaint and moved for remand, which was denied. Several months later, Defendants moved for summary judgment. Plaintiffs oppose entry of summary judgment.
A. Standard for Summary Judgment
Summary judgment is appropriate where the Court is satisfied that "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law."
Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330 (1986); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c).
An issue is "genuine" if it is supported by evidence such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in the nonmoving party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is "material" if, under the governing substantive law, a dispute about the fact might affect the outcome of the suit. Id. In considering a motion for summary judgment, a district court may not make credibility determinations or engage in any weighing of the evidence; instead, the nonmoving party's evidence "is to be believed and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Marino v. Indus. Crating Co., 358 F.3d 241, 247 (3d Cir. 2004) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255).
Initially, the moving party has the burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 323. Once the moving party has met this burden, the nonmoving party must identify, by affidavits or otherwise, specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. Thus, to withstand a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must identify specific facts and affirmative evidence that contradict those offered by the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256-57. A party opposing summary judgment must do more than just rest upon mere allegations, general denials, or vague statements. Saldana v. Kmart Corp., 260 F.3d 228, 232 (3d Cir. 2001).
B. New Jersey Civil Rights Act Claims*fn6
The New Jersey Civil Rights Act (hereinafter "NJCRA") was modeled after 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and creates a private cause of action for violations of civil rights secured under either the United States or New Jersey Constitutions. Slinger v. New Jersey, No. 07-5561, 2008 WL 4126181, * 5-6 (D.N.J. September 4, 2008), rev'd on other grounds 366 Fed. Appx. 357 (3d Cir. 2010); Armstrong v. Sherman, No. 09-716, 2010 WL 2483911, * 5 (D.N.J. June 4, 2010). NJCRA provides, in pertinent part, a private cause of action to [a]ny person who has been deprived of any substantive due process or equal protection rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or any substantive rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of this State, or whose exercise or enjoyment of those substantive rights, privileges or immunities has been interfered with or attempted to be interfered with, by threats, intimidation or coercion by a person acting under color of law.
N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c). This district has repeatedly interpreted NJCRA analogously to § 1983. See Chapman v. New Jersey, No. 08-4130, 2009 WL 2634888, *3 (D.N.J. August 25, 2009) ("Courts have repeatedly construed the NJCRA in terms nearly identical to its federal counterpart"); Slinger, 2008 WL 4126181 at *5 (noting NJCRA's legislative history, this district utilized existing § 1983 jurisprudence as guidance for interpreting the statute); Armstrong, 2010 WL 2483911 at *5 ("[T]he New Jersey Civil Rights Act is a kind of analog to section 1983"). Therefore, the Court will analyze Plaintiffs' NJCRA claims through the lens of § 1983. See Hedges v. Musco, 204 F.3d 109, 121 n. 12 (3d Cir. 2000) (concluding that New Jersey's constitutional provision concerning unreasonable searches and seizures is interpreted analogously to the Fourth Amendment) (citing Desilets v. Clearview Reg'l Bd. of Educ., 627 A.2d 667, 673 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1993) ("We are not persuaded that the New Jersey Constitution provides greater protection under the circumstances of this case than its federal counterpart. We note that in its T.L.O. opinion the New Jersey Supreme Court analyzed the search and seizure issue under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and did not suggest that New Jersey's organic law imposed more stringent standards")).
To state a claim under § 1983 and the NJCRA, a plaintiff must establish that (1) the conduct deprived him of his rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States or New Jersey and (2) the conduct challenged was committed by a person acting under color of state law. Gomez v. Toledo, 446 U.S. 635, 640 (1980); Shuman ex rel. Shertzer v. Penn Manor School Dist., 422 F.3d 141, 146 (3d Cir. 2005).
Government officials, however, may assert a defense of qualified immunity. "'The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'" Montanez v. Thompson, 603 F.3d 243, 249-50 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 129 S.Ct. 808, 815 (2009)); see Love v. New Jersey Div. of Youth & Family Serv., No. 07-3661, 2010 WL 2950019, at * 2 n. 10 (D.N.J. July 22, 2010) (holding that "as a legal matter, state officials sued in their individual capacity under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act do have a qualified immunity defense available to them"). A Court must undertake a two-step inquiry to determine the applicability of qualified immunity:
First, a court must decide whether the facts that a plaintiff has alleged or shown make out a violation of a constitutional right. Second, if the plaintiff has satisfied this first step, the court must decide whether the right at issue was clearly established at the time of a defendant's alleged misconduct. Qualified immunity is applicable unless the official's conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right.
Montanez, 603 F.3d at 250. "Where a defendant asserts a qualified immunity defense in a motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff bears the initial burden of showing that the defendant's conduct violated some clearly established statutory or constitutional right." Sherwood v. Mulvihill, 113 F.3d 396, 399 (3d Cir. 1997). "Only if the plaintiff carries this initial burden must the defendant then demonstrate that no genuine issue of material fact remains as to the 'objective reasonableness' of the defendant's belief in the lawfulness of his actions." Id. In determining whether a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity, the court may address either of the two prongs first.
Plaintiffs allege Defendants violated numerous provisions of the New Jersey State Constitution, particularly the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, right to freedom of speech, right to be free from physical force asserted against them by police officers or other officials without lawful reason, right to own real personal property without unreasonable intrusive and violent interference by the police of other public officials, right to equal protection under the law and right to due process.*fn7 Because a substantial number of Plaintiffs' allegations either involve or are dependent on Defendant Lucarini's conduct, the Court will first address his liability.
1. Defendant Lucarini
The Court construes Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint to allege five NJCRA claims against Defendant Lucarini, unreasonable seizure, unreasonable search, equal protection, due process and free speech claims.
a. Seizure of Trooper
Plaintiffs claim Defendant Lucarini's shooting of their dog constituted an unreasonable seizure. In response, Defendants contend Defendant Lucarini's conduct was reasonable. The Fourth Amendment protects "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures . . . ." U.S. Const. amend. IV. An "effect" includes a person's personal property. United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 700-01 (1983). Personal property is seized when "there is some meaningful interference with an individual's possessory interests in that property." United States v. Jacobsen, 466 U.S. 109, 113 (1984). Destruction of an individual's property represents a sufficiently meaningful interference with his possessory interest in that property as to constitute a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 124-125. In Brown v. Muhlenberg Township, 269 F.3d 205, 210 (3d Cir. 2001), the Third Circuit not only concluded that a dog is a property interest protected by the Fourth Amendment, but also that a police officer's shooting of a dog, which resulted in its death or destruction, constituted a seizure.*fn8 Brown v. Muhlenberg Twp., 269 F.3d 205, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). Although the dog, Trooper, in the present matter did not die as a result of the shooting, the Court assumes, without deciding, that the shooting and wounding of a dog by a law enforcement officer is a sufficiently meaningful interference with an owner's possessory interests in his property as to constitute a seizure.
Before a seizure arises to a constitutional violation, the Court must determine whether the interference was unreasonable. "The Fourth Amendment is not, of course, a guarantee against all searches and seizures, but only against unreasonable searches and seizures." United States v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675, 682 (1985). A seizure of property conducted without a warrant is presumptively unreasonable. Place, 462 U.S. at 701. If the state's interest, however, is "sufficiently compelling" and if the "intrusion . . . is not disproportionate to that interest," a warrantless seize may nonetheless be reasonable. Brown, 269 F.3d at 210; see Place, 462 U.S. at 703 (stating that for a warrantless search to be reasonable, the 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").
The state has an interest in restraining animals to protect the life or property of others. Brown, 269 F.3d at 210. The amount of force utilized to restrain an animal waxes and wanes with the danger it possesses. See Id. at 210-211. The destruction of an animal that poses little or no danger to the life or property of others would constitute an unreasonable seizure. See Id. at 211 (holding that an officer's destruction of a dog that presented little or no danger to his life was an unreasonable seizure). The state's interest, however, may justify the "extreme intrusion occasioned" by an animal's destruction if that animal poses an "imminent danger" to the life or property of others. Id. at 210-11; see Altman v. City of High Point, North Carolina, 330 F.3d 194, 206 (4th Cir. 2003) (concluding that an officer's destruction of a fleeing dog was reasonable because he could not safely capture the reportedly aggressive animal). This decision regarding the quantity of danger to life or property an animal possesses is not determined by the subjective intent of the officer. Rather, the officer's actions are viewed from an objective prospective. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989) ("[T]he question is whether the officers' actions are 'objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation"). The Court has specifically admonished that "[t]he calculus of reasonableness must embody allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments - in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving - about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation." Id. at 396-97. In other words, a court must substitute itself for the officer at the time the actions occurred and determine whether the officer's actions were objectively unreasonable. Altman, 330 F.3d at 205.
Although the wounding of the pet was unfortunate and likely traumatic
to the owner, the Court concludes Defendant Lucarini's actions were
reasonable. In reaching this decision, the Court balances the
interests of Defendant Lucarini in protecting himself with Plaintiffs'
interest in their property, Trooper. In their Opposition to
Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment, Plaintiffs primarily rely
upon Brown. However, contrary to Plaintiffs' contentions, Brown does
not preclude entry of summary judgment on behalf of Defendant
Lucarini. In Brown, the Third Circuit concluded that the defendant
police officer's conduct was unreasonable when he destroyed a dog that
posed no imminent threat, was stationary, was not barking, was not
acting aggressively and whose owner was nearby willing to assume
custody. Brown, 269 F.3d at 209, 211. The matter presently before the
Court, however, could not be more dissimilar. Here, Trooper was not
stationary. He was running toward Defendant Lucarini.*fn9
(Doc. 28, ¶ 17). Trooper also ignored
Defendant Lucarini's commands to "stop" and "heel." Id. Trooper then "leaped
aggressively" at Defendant Lucarini and landed "approximately five
feet in front" of him. Id. Fearful for his safety, Defendant Lucarini
"fired three rounds as the dog was about to spring." Id. Although
Plaintiffs were nearby in their home, they did emerge or attempt to
calm Trooper. They only appeared after the shots were fired. The
aforementioned facts do not portray a calm dog; they indicate Trooper
was acting aggressively.
The reasonableness of Defendant Lucarini's actions are especially illustrated by the timing of his decision to shoot Trooper. Trooper was not shot as he ran toward Defendant Lucarini, nor was he shot after he "leaped aggressively" toward him. Id. Defendant Lucarini's decision to discharge his firearm and utilize deadly force only occurred at the last possible moment, "as the dog was about to spring." Id. Based upon the totality of Trooper's actions, this decision to shot a dog about to "spring" and on the cusp of attacking was objectively reasonable. Defendant Lucarini, out of fear for his personal safety, discharged his firearm because he believed he was in imminent danger of being attacked or bitten by Trooper.
The Court acknowledges that no one can say for sure that Trooper
intended to attack the officer. However, at the time Defendant
Lucarini fired his gun, he had no way to know Trooper's
true intentions only that he appeared ready to strike.*fn10
Defendant Lucarini refrained from shooting Trooper and the dog acted
out his hostile demeanor as he appeared ready to do, the time would
have already expired for him to safety discharge his sidearm in self
defense. See Warboys v. Proulx, 303 F. Supp.2d 111, 118 (D. Conn.
2004). Consequently, in that scenario, Defendant Lucarini would be
forced to defend himself by some other means and, perhaps, risk
serious injury or death. See Id. The reasonableness standard does not
require this type of wait and see approach. Defendant Lucarini need
not wait until a threat is literally within inches of striking
distance before utilizing deadly force.
Plaintiffs additionally contend Defendant Lucarini's actions were unreasonable because he could have chosen another response rather than shooting Trooper, such as calling Plaintiffs in advance of his arrival or firing a warning shot. This argument, however, misconstrues the Supreme Court's interpretation of reasonableness. Reasonableness is not a rigid standard that requires an officer to choose the single best possible response. It's more variable. The objective reasonableness standard permits an officer to select his reaction from a smorgasbord of alternative choices, with the single requirement that his action be justified by the circumstances. See Illinois v. Lafayette, 462 U.S. 640, 647 (1983) (quoting Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 447 (1973) ("[t]he fact that the protection of the public might, in the abstract, have been accomplished by 'less intrusive' means does not, by itself, render the search unreasonable")); see also Hatch v. Grosinger, No. 01-1906, 2003 WL 1610778, at * 5 (D.
Minn. March 3, 2003) (quoting Schulz v. Long, 44 F.3d 643, 649 (8th Cir. 1995) (addressing plaintiffs' argument that defendants could have responded in a different manner, the court opined that "the Fourth Amendment does not allow this type of Monday morning quarterback approach because it only requires that the seizure fall within a range of objective reasonableness")). Defendant Lucarini's decision to discharge his firearm was one of the many split second judgments law enforcement officers must make. The facts*fn11 clearly indicate the circumstances were uncertain and rapidly evolving. The Court, therefore, concludes Defendant Lucarini's decision on whether and what type of force to use was well within the realm of reasonableness. When confronted with an aggressive dog that made him fearful for his safety, Defendant Lucarini chose to shot Trooper. This choice, whether right or wrong, is not for the Court to second guess because it was an objectively reasonable response to the circumstances Defendant Lucarini confronted. In light of Defendant Lucarini's objectively reasonable conduct, the Court must conclude that the seizure was reasonable. Accordingly, the Court need not determine whether the right was clearly established. Defendant Lucarini is entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment will be entered on his behalf.
b. Search of Plaintiff Lopez
Plaintiffs contend Defendant Lucarini's pat-down frisk of Plaintiff Lopez constituted an unreasonable search. Defendants opine that Defendant Lucarini's pat-down frisk was a reasonable search because he feared for his safety.
In Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the Supreme Court held that a law
enforcement officer, without violating the Fourth Amendment, may
briefly stop, detain and frisk an individual if the officer can "point
to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational
inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion." Terry
v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968). The Court further opined that in
determining the reasonableness of a frisk, a court must ascertain
whether "the facts available to the officer at the moment of the
seizure . . .
warrant a man of reasonable caution in the belief" that the suspect is
armed. Id. at 21-22, 30 (citations and internal quotations omitted).
Consequently, Terry requires "two separate sets of articulable facts,"
one set justifies the stop and the other the frisk.*fn12
U.S. v. Focareta, 283 Fed. Appx. 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2008). If an
officer believes a suspect to be armed and dangerous, a frisk is
justified and the officer may execute a pat-down search, Terry, 392
U.S. at 27, 30, which must be confined to the individual's outer layer
of clothing and must be
limited to discovering whether the individual is armed. Beatty v. Twp.
of Elk, No. 08-2235, 2010 WL 1493118, at * 11 (D.N.J. April 14, 2010).
As discussed in the preceding section, a court determines the reasonableness of an officer's actions by viewing the search from an objective viewpoint. Furthermore, in assessing reasonableness, courts take into account the totality of the circumstances, which include the location, history of crime in the area, the suspect's nervous behavior or evasiveness and the officer's "commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior." Focareta, 283 Fed. Appx. at 83 (quoting Johnson v. Campbell, 332 F.3d 199, 206 (3d Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
In the present matter, Defendant Lucarini's affidavit indicated he conducted the pat-down frisk because he feared for his safety. Upon entering Plaintiffs' property, Defendant Lucarini narrowly avoided an attack by Plaintiffs' dog. After discharging his firearm in self defense, Plaintiff Lopez heard the shots and emerged from his house. Ignoring Defendant Lucarini's commands for Plaintiff Lopez to speak with him, Plaintiff Lopez reentered the house. Although Plaintiff Lopez asserts he reentered the house to telephone the police, Defendant Lucarini could not possibly known that fact in that time frame. Shortly thereafter, Plaintiff Lopez reemerged from the house and yelled "why the fuck did you shoot my dog." (Doc. 28, ¶ 18). This expletive, combined with Plaintiff Lopez's re-entry of his house, led Defendant Lucarini to conduct a pat-down frisk.
The Court finds the pat-down frisk reasonable. Already fearful for his safety because of the incident with Trooper, Defendant Lucarini encountered Plaintiff Lopez, swearing and angry. Defendant Lucarini had no way to ascertain or know why Plaintiff Lopez not only ignored his initial command to speak with him, but also why Plaintiff Lopez reentered his house after their first and brief encounter. See United States v. Connolly, 349 Fed. Appx. 754, 757 (3d Cir. 2009) (finding that an officer had reasonable suspicion to justify a frisk when after the officer identified himself the suspect placed his hands into his pants and refused to remove them). Although Plaintiff Lopez claims he stepped inside to call the police, a claim we accept as true, from Defendant Lucarini's prospective, Plaintiff Lopez could have reentered his home to retrieve a firearm because he was upset, angry or distraught over the shooting of Trooper. Defendant Lucarini did not witness the actions inside Plaintiff Lopez's home and, therefore, could not know what to expect when Plaintiff Lopez reemerged from his residence. The reasonableness of Defendant Lucarini's pat-down frisk is further supported by Plaintiff Lopez's statement, made immediately upon his re-emergence, "why the fuck did you shoot my dog." (Doc. 28, ¶ 18).
This statement conveys hostility and anger. That animosity, combined with the unknown element of what Plaintiff Lopez did inside his home, justifies the frisk. Consequently, based upon Plaintiff Lopez's actions and temperament, it was entirely reasonable for Defendant Lucarini to fear for his safety and believe Plaintiff Lopez possessed a weapon. See Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 146 (1972) ("The policeman making a reasonable investigatory stop should not be denied the opportunity to protect himself from attack by a hostile suspect"). Accordingly, Defendant Lucarini is entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment will be entered on his behalf.
C. Equal Protection Claim
The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits a state from denying "any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. In other words, a state must treat all similarly situated persons similarly. Shuman ex rel. Shertzer, 422 F.3d at 151. To properly plead an equal protection claim, a plaintiff must establish that "the challenged law enforcement practice had a discriminatory effect and was motivated by a discriminatory purpose." Carrasca v. Pomeroy, 313 F.3d 828, 834 (3d Cir. 2002). "In other words, [a plaintiff] must demonstrate that [he] received different treatment from that received by other individuals similarly situated." Shuman ex rel. Shertzer, 422 F.3d at 151. Plaintiffs' claims fail for several reasons. Not only do Plaintiffs not plead the existence of purposeful discrimination, but also they do not offer any evidence indicating Defendant Lucarini treated them differently from other individuals similarly situated. Accordingly, the Court need not determine whether the right was clearly established. Defendant Lucarini is entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment will be entered on his behalf.
D. Due Process
A state may not deprive an individual of his property without due process of law. The destruction of an individual's property by a state constitutes a deprivation and, therefore, requires due process. Brown, 269 F.3d at 213. Generally, the process that is due "must be afforded before the deprivation occurs" - pre-deprivation process. Id. When the deprivation is "random and unauthorized," however, "the very nature of the deprivation ma[kes] pre-deprivation process impossible." Id. (quoting Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113, 137 (1990)). Consequently, in those instances, the state need only provide post-deprivation process. Id.
The Third Circuit has held that a dog's destruction does not warrant pre-deprivation process.*fn13 Id. In those instances, to comply with the due process clause, the state need only provide a post-deprivation remedy, a suit for damages. Id. In the instant matter, New Jersey provides a post-deprivation remedy in the form of a lawsuit for damages. See N.J.S.A. 59:2-2 ("A public entity is liable for injury proximately caused by an act or omission of a public employee within the scope of his employment in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances"); see also Trader v. New Jersey, Div. of State Police, No. 05-4065, 2006 WL 2524172, at * 5 (D.N.J. Aug. 29, 2006) (noting that the plaintiffs' procedural due process claim must be dismissed because the New Jersey Tort Claims Act "provides an adequate post-deprivation remedy for the unauthorized deprivation of property by public employees"). Accordingly, the Court need not determine whether the right was clearly established. Defendant Lucarini is entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment will be entered on his behalf.
E. Freedom of Speech
The Court construes Plaintiffs' freedom of speech claim to allege that Defendant Lucarini unconstitutionally interfered with the roadside memorial for Plaintiffs' deceased son. The Court will enter summary judgment in favor of Defendant Lucarini because there is no evidence on record, nor any allegation in Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint, that Defendant Lucarini unconstitutionally interfered with the roadside memorial or Plaintiffs' freedom of speech.*fn14 Defendant Lucarini is entitled to qualified immunity and summary judgment will be entered on his behalf.
2. Defendants State of New Jersey and New Jersey State Police Summary judgment will be entered in favor of Defendants State of New Jersey and New Jersey State Police. All claims against these Defendants were predicated upon the unconstitutional conduct of Defendant Lucarini. See Brown, 269 F.3d at 214 ("Because the civil rights act liability of the remaining defendants is predicated on there being a constitutional violation committed by [the] Officer . . . we will hereafter confine our discussion to civil rights liability in connection with the possible" violation committed by the officer). Since the Court concluded Defendant Lucarini's actions were constitutional, summary judgment will be entered in favor of Defendants State of New Jersey and New Jersey State Police.*fn15
3. Defendants Estell Manor and Mayor of Estell Manor Venezia
Plaintiffs allege a plethora of claims against Defendants Estell Manor
and Mayor of Estell Manor Venezia. Summary judgment will be granted
with respect to the claims that relate to Defendant
Lucarini*fn16 because the Court determined that his
conduct did not violate any constitutional rights.*fn17
See Brown, 269 F.3d at 214 ("Because the civil rights act liability of the
remaining defendants is predicated on there being a constitutional
violation committed by [the] Officer . . . we will hereafter confine
our discussion to civil rights liability in connection with the
possible" violation committed by the officer).
a. Free Speech, Equal Protection and Due Process Claims The Court construes Plaintiffs' free speech, equal protection and due process claims against Defendants Estell Manor and Mayor of Estell Manor Venezia to arise from the removal of the roadside memorial for Plaintiffs' son. The Court concludes Defendants Estell Manor and Mayor of Estell Manor Venezia did not violate Plaintiffs' free speech, equal protection or due process rights. With respect to Plaintiffs' free speech claim, the Roadside Sign Control and Outdoor Advertising Act (hereinafter "COAA") regulates and specifically prohibits the erection of roadside memorials on utility polls. NJSA 27:5-9(f) ("A sign may not be painted, drawn, erected or maintained upon trees, rocks, other natural features or public utility poles"). The memorial in the current matter constituted a sign as defined in the COAA. See NJSA 27:5-7 (defining sign to mean "outdoor display . . . on real property" that attracts, either through design or unintentionally, motorists, passengers or pedestrians). The COAA further provides that Defendants Estell Manor and Mayor of Estell Manor Venezia are under a duty to enforce the roadside act and remove items that violate the act. See NJSA 27:5-23 ("It shall be the duty of . . . local government and . . . all . . . municipal officers charged with the enforcement of State and municipal laws . . . to assist in the enforcement of the provisions of this act and the orders issued, or rules or regulations adopted pursuant to this act"); see also Philadelphia Outdoor v. New Jersey Expressway Auth., 534 A.2d 77, 83 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1987) (holding that the act and its regulations do not violate the First Amendment). The Court, therefore, concludes that summary judgment will be entered on behalf of Defendants Estell Manor and Mayor of Estell Manor Venezia because they did not violate Plaintiffs' right to free speech.*fn18 With respect to Plaintiffs' equal protection and due process claims, summary judgment will be entered in favor of Defendants Estell Manor and Mayor of Estell Manor Venezia because the record is void of any facts regarding how Plaintiffs were treated differently or that Plaintiffs were deprived of any due process.*fn19
C. Plaintiffs' state tort claims
Plaintiffs assert that Defendants committed several state torts, including assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Defendants contend summary judgment should be entered on their behalf because they are entitled to good faith immunity under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (hereinafter "NJTCA").
The NJTCA provides that a "public employee is not liable if he acts in good faith in the execution or enforcement of any law." N.J.S.A. § 59:3-3. In ascertaining whether good faith immunity exists, the New Jersey Supreme Court opined that "our courts have ruled that to obtain summary judgment, a public employee must establish that her conduct was objectively reasonable." Fielder v. Stonack, 661 A.2d 231, 246 (N.J. 1995). The New Jersey Supreme Court further clarified that "[t]he same standard of objective reasonableness that applies in Section 1983 actions also governs questions of good faith arising under the Tort Claims Act." Wildoner v. Borough of Ramsey, 744 A.2d 1146, 1153 (N.J. 2000). Therefore, if the alleged tort and alleged constitutional violation arise out of the same conduct, and the Court concludes that no constitutional violation occurred because the public employee's actions were objectively reasonable, the NJTCA's good faith provision applies and bars prosecution of the tort claim.
In the present matter, Plaintiffs' tort claims are barred by the NJTCA's good faith immunity provision. Plaintiffs' allege Defendant Lucarini committed an assault and battery when he frisked Plaintiff Lopez. The Court, however, concluded Defendant Lucarini's actions were objectively reasonable and that no constitutional violation occurred. Therefore, pursuant to the NJTCA, Defendant Lucarini is entitled to immunity with respect to the assault and battery claim. Plaintiffs additionally allege Defendants intentionally or negligently inflicted emotional distress on them by "violating their civil rights, entering their property for no lawful reason, threatening them, assaulting them, battering them, shooting their dog and refusing to assist Plaintiffs in dealing with the chaos and carnage that Defendants caused." (Doc. 21, Compl. ¶ 38). This claim also fails because the Court concluded that either no constitutional violation occurred or that the respective public employees' actions were objectively reasonable.*fn20 The Court will, therefore, enter summary judgment in favor of Defendants.
For the reasons expressed above, Defendants' Motions for Summary Judgment [Docs. 25, 26] will be granted. An appropriate order will be entered.
NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.