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Sydney E. Belfield v. Officer Pichardo I.D. # 4669

November 28, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. William J. Martini



Presently before the Court are four motions for summary judgment filed by Defendants (1) Salvatore Macolino, (2) Eddy Pichardo, (3) James DiPiazza ("Officer Defendants"), and (4) the City of Paterson and the Paterson Police Department*fn1 ("Municipal Defendants"). All motions are unopposed. For the reasons that follow, summary judgment will be DENIED as to Officer Defendants, and GRANTED as to Municipal Defendants.


Plaintiff pro se James E. Belfield alleges that during his April 10, 2010 arrest, after he was already handcuffed and subdued, Paterson Police Officers Macolino, Pichardo, and DiPiazza beat him and unleashed a police K-9 on him. The undisputed facts are as follows: On April 10, at approximately 2:00 a.m., Officer Defendants arrested Plaintiff while he was in a vacant house in Paterson, New Jersey. In the course of the arrest, a police dog bit Plaintiff in the leg several times. Thereafter, Plaintiff was immediately transported to the emergency room and treated for puncture wounds to the leg. On December 17, 2010, Plaintiff pled guilty in New Jersey Superior Court to third-degree burglary and fourth-degree drug possession. In the course of that plea, he admitted that on the day of his arrest, he "ran away from the police" because he illegally possessed 16 pills of busiprone, and illegally entered an abandoned house to evade arrest.

What is disputed, however, are the circumstances surrounding Plaintiff's arrest. According to Defendants, after Officer Macolino observed Plaintiff make a drug sale, he ordered Plaintiff to stop. Plaintiff ignored those commands, and instead fled into a dark, vacant property. Defendants eventually located Plaintiff hiding in a closet on the third floor. After Plaintiff refused to cooperate with their commands to come out of the closet, the police K-9 was set on him. After the K-9 ceased biting Plaintiff, he continued to resist arrest, and the officers had to use further force to subdue him.

Plaintiff's version of his arrest differs significantly.*fn2 Plaintiff claims that he was in the abandoned building to get high, and that once he knew police officers were inside the property, he sat quietly hoping they would not find him. However, once the police located him, he complied fully with their commands, and did not resist arrest. Plaintiff claims that after he was handcuffed, Officer Pichardo repeatedly hit him in the head with a flashlight and Officer Macolino repeatedly hit him in the back with a walkie-talkie until Plaintiff lay prone on the floor, at which point Officer DiPiazza ordered the police dog to attack Plaintiff for between three and five minutes. Thereafter, Officer Pichardo dragged Plaintiff by the collar, head first, down three flights of stairs.

In addition to the documented puncture wounds from the dog bite, Plaintiff claims to have suffered an abrasion over his left eye as a result of the beating. That claim cannot be verified at this time, because no party has supplied the Court with a copy of the hospital report or the photos of Plaintiff's injuries taken after his arrest and referenced in the police reports. Although discovery is over, the evidentiary support provided by Defendants in support of their respective summary judgment motions is scant. Collectively, it consists of several police reports, Plaintiff's deposition testimony, Plaintiff's responses to Defendant Pichardo's interrogatories, and the transcript of Plaintiff's December 17, 2010 criminal plea.


a. Unopposed Summary Judgment Standard

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)(2). In determining whether summary judgment is proper, the Court must consider all facts and their reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the non-moving party. Moreover, Plaintiff's failure to respond to the motions does not automatically mean summary judgment is proper. Anchorage Assocs. v. Virgin Islands Bd. of Tax Review, 922 F.2d 168, 175 (3d Cir. 1990); see also, Salaam v. Merlin, 2010 WL 2545951, *6 (D.N.J. 2010) (denying unopposed summary judgment motion as to plaintiff's excessive force claim on the basis of testimony provided in his deposition); and Melvin v. Astbury, 2008 WL 5416384, *6 n. 3 (D.N.J. 2008) (denying summary judgment on excessive force claim where evidence relied on by defendant was self-prepared police reports).

b. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Qualified Immunity

In general, police officers may be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for their on-duty actions which violate rights secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States, unless those acts are shielded by qualified immunity. Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 140 (1979). In determining if qualified immunity is appropriately used to shield Officer Defendants from § 1983 liability in this matter, the Court must consider: (1) whether Plaintiff has alleged a violation of a constitutional right and, (2) whether that right that was already clearly established at the time of Plaintiff's arrest. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009). Summary judgment for Officer Defendants based on qualified immunity will be proper only if the record fails to suggest their conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right. Id.

i. Viewing the Record in the Light Most Favorable to Plaintiff, Officer Defendants' Actions Deprived ...

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