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Robert Mitchell v. Township of Willingboro Municipality Government

November 28, 2012

ROBERT MITCHELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF WILLINGBORO MUNICIPALITY GOVERNMENT, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jerome B. Simandle

OPINION

SIMANDLE, Chief Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter is before the Court on Defendant Jeffrey Perez's motion to dismiss [Docket Item 34], Plaintiff Robert Mitchell's motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 37] and Defendant Jeffrey Perez's cross motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 40]. The instant action arises out of a traffic stop on July 3, 2010 when Defendant Officer Jeffrey Perez ("Defendant") stopped Plaintiff Robert Mitchell ("Plaintiff") after receiving a 9-1-1 dispatch with a description of a suspicious vehicle. Plaintiff is an African American and alleges the 9-1-1 dispatch did not create the requisite reasonable suspicion to stop his car because his vehicle did not match the given description. Consequently, Plaintiff brought the instant action against Defendant Perez alleging his Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

For the reasons discussed below, the court will deny all pending motions as genuine issues of material fact exist which prevent summary judgment. In addition, the court will sua sponte appoint pro bono counsel for the Plaintiff pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e).

II. BACKGROUND

The factual background of this case is set forth in the court's opinion of July 26, 2011 and is incorporated herein. [Docket Item 5]; Mitchell v. Township of Willingboro Municipality Government, Civ. No. 11-1664, 2011 WL 3203677 (D.N.J. July 26, 2011).

Plaintiff filed this action based on a police stop of his vehicle that resulted in his arrest because of outstanding warrants against him. Plaintiff claims that the officer stopping his vehicle lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop, and that he was stopped because of racial profiling, describing himself as a "Black Afro-American Male Citizen." Compl. 6B.

Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that on July 3, 2010 he was driving in the Township of Willingboro with his son and son's girlfriend. Id. at 6C. They were in a green 1993 Honda Accord owned by Plaintiff's wife. Id. Plaintiff alleges that he did not speed or otherwise break any traffic laws. Id. at 6D, 6E. Plaintiff alleges that the officer who stopped him explained that he received a 9-1-1 dispatch call regarding a four-door, blue Honda Accord with no rear license plate and, therefore, stopped Plaintiff's car.*fn1 Id. at 6G. Plaintiff notes that his two-door Honda Accord is green and had a State of Pennsylvania rear license plate. Id.

Plaintiff did not have his driver's license with him, and when the officer performed a warrant check, central dispatch reported that outstanding warrants existed on Plaintiff's record. Id. at 6H. Plaintiff was arrested and brought to the Willingboro Township Police Department for booking. Id. at 6I. Plaintiff was issued a ticket for operating a motor vehicle on an expired driver's license. Id. Plaintiff claims the officer falsified the summons to show the car as being blue instead of green. Id.

Plaintiff filed the instant action in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, attempting to assert claims for deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the following Defendants in both their individual and official capacities: the Township of Willingboro, the Township of Willingboro Police Department, the Township Manager, the Township Director of Public Safety, the Township Police Captain , and the Township Police Officer involved in the stop (who was unnamed in the caption but identified in the Complaint as Officer Jeffrey Perez).

Since Plaintiff brought the instant action in forma pauperis pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915, the court engaged in a sua sponte screening, as required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e). In conducting the sua sponte screening, the court noted that "[t]he legal standard for dismissing a complaint for failure to state a claim pursuant to § 1915(e)(2)(B) is identical to the legal standard used when ruling on Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) motions." Mitchell, 2011 WL 3203677 at *2 (citing Courteau v. United States, 287 F. App'x 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2008)).

Applying this standard, the court dismissed the majority of Plaintiff's complaint. Specifically, the court dismissed the claims against the Township of Willingboro, the Township of Willingboro Police Department, the Township Manager, Joanne Jennings, the Township Director of Public Safety, Gregory Rucker, and the Township Police Captain, Donna C. Demetri for failure to state a claim. The court also dismissed the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims against Officer Perez for failure to state a claim.

However, the court preliminarily concluded the Complaint asserted a viable Fourth Amendment claim against Officer Perez. The court found the Plaintiff had sufficiently pled that Officer Perez had neither probable cause to believe a traffic violation had occurred nor reasonable suspicion that Plaintiff was engaged in criminal activity when he pulled over Plaintiff's vehicle, making the stop unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. In particular, the Complaint alleged the officer's explanation for the stop, that he had received a 9-1-1 dispatch call regarding a four-door, blue Honda Accord, was pretextual. (Compl. 6J.) The Complaint further alleged that Plaintiff's vehicle was a green, two-door Honda Accord with Pennsylvania license plates and did not match the description of the blue, four-door Honda Accord with no rear license plate apparently provided by the call. Id. at 6G.

Therefore, the Court found the Plaintiff sufficiently pled that Officer Perez had neither probable cause to believe a traffic violation had occurred nor reasonable suspicion that Plaintiff was engaged in criminal activity. Mitchell, 2011 WL 3203677 at **4-5. Consequently, Plaintiff was permitted to proceed with his Fourth Amendment claim against Defendant Perez.

After filing an answer to the Complaint, Defendant Perez then filed the instant motion to dismiss.*fn2 [Docket Item 34.] Defendant Perez argues Plaintiff's complaint fails to state a Fourth Amendment claim against him and argues that he is entitled to qualified immunity.

The Plaintiff did not respond to Defendant Perez's motion to dismiss. Instead, the Plaintiff filed an independent motion for summary judgment. [Docket Item 37.] Plaintiff argues he is entitled to summary judgment because Defendant Perez has failed to respond to his discovery requests. Specifically, Plaintiff maintains Defendant Perez failed to answer his interrogatories and failed to respond to his document requests.

Defendant Perez then filed a cross motion for summary judgment. [Docket Item 40.] Defendant Perez attaches as an exhibit his answers to Plaintiff's interrogatories. Defendant Perez does not address whether he responded to Plaintiff's document requests. In his cross motion for summary judgment, Defendant Perez reiterates his qualified immunity argument and does not respond to Plaintiff's arguments regarding discovery violations. In support of his cross motion, Defendant Perez relies on the transcript of the 9-1-1 dispatch call and internal affairs investigation report which exonerated Defendant Perez of any misconduct associated with the police stop. The investigation report concluded that Defendant Perez lawfully stopped Plaintiff's vehicle because though it "wasn't an exact match" it was "very similar" to the vehicle described by dispatch. (Def.'s Ex. D.) The Plaintiff did not file a reply to Defendant's cross motion.

The court will address each motion separately below.

III. DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS

A. Standard

In order to give defendant fair notice, and to permit early dismissal if the complained-of conduct does not provide adequate grounds for the cause of action alleged, a complaint must allege, in more than legal boilerplate, those facts about the conduct of each defendant giving rise to liability. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a) and 11(b)(3). These factual allegations must present a plausible basis for relief (i.e., something more than the mere possibility of legal misconduct). See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1951 (2009). In its review of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., the Court must "accept all factual allegations as true and construe the complaint in ...


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