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Lamar Johnson v. City of Atlantic City

December 27, 2012

LAMAR JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., SERGEANT RUARK, OFFICER JAMES SARKOS, OFFICER MICHAEL TRACY, AND DETECTIVE ROSE, DEFENDANTS.



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

OPINION

Presently before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment of Defendants Sergeant Rodney Ruark, Sergeant James Sarkos, and Detective Timothy Rose (collectively hereinafter "Defendants" or "the Officers").*fn1 For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be granted.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In March of 2008, the Atlantic City Police Department and Atlantic County Prosecutors Office began a joint investigation into ongoing drug operations in southern New Jersey. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. A, Atl. City Police Dept. Rep. ("ACPD Rep.") at 14.) During the investigation, law enforcement ascertained that Plaintiff Lamar Johnson was involved in the distribution of cocaine in and around southern New Jersey. (Id.) This information was gleaned from several controlled drug buys conducted between confidential informants and Johnson. (Id., see also Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. B, Atl. Cnty. Prosecutors Off. Invest. Rep. ("ACPO Inv. Rep.").) Also during the course of the investigation, law enforcement obtained a wiretap on Johnson's cell phone. (ACPD Rep. at 14.) The wiretap was authorized by a judge of the New Jersey Superior Court in Atlantic County. (Id.)

Law enforcement officials decided to arrest Johnson for possession and distribution of cocaine during a suspected drug deal on October 8, 2008. (Id.) On the same day, Sergeant Ruark prepared an arrest warrant, which he swore out before the same Superior Court Judge. (Id.) While Sergeant Ruark was swearing out the warrant, Sergeant Sarkos and Detective Rose were monitoring Johnson's activities in his vehicle outside an apartment complex which he frequented in Brigantine, New Jersey. (Id.)

At some point during the surveillance, Johnson entered his vehicle, left the apartment complex, and drove to Atlantic City. (Id. at 14, 16.) Sergeant Sarkos contacted Sergeant Ruark and informed him that Johnson was on the move, at which time Ruark instructed Sarkos to pull Johnson over and arrest him. (Id. at 14.) Sergeant Sarkos and Detective Rose stopped Johnson in a parking lot adjacent to a casino in Atlantic City. (Id. at 16.) The officers ordered Johnson to exit his vehicle and handcuffed him, and then conducted a search of his person incident to arrest. (Id.) Detective Rose observed Johnson immediately bend over to his left side - a maneuver he recognized from his experience and training as an attempt to conceal a weapon or contraband. (Id.) Detective Rose ordered Johnson to stand upright, and, upon doing so, observed a prominent bulge protruding from his waistband. (Id.) Detective Rose removed the object from Johnson's waistband, and discovered a clear plastic bag filled with multiple white and yellow rock-like pieces, which he recognized as crack cocaine. (Id. at 14, 16.) Detective Rose also found $804.00 in the right front pocket of Johnson's pants. (Id. at 16--17.) Sergeant Sarkos and Detective Rose then placed Johnson in the back of a marked patrol car and transported him to the Atlantic City Police Department. (Id. at 16.)

The contraband was marked and sent to the State Police laboratory for further analysis. (Id. at 14)

Johnson's vehicle was also transported to the Atlantic City Police Department. (Id. at 15, 20.) The vehicle was not searched, however, until a search warrant was obtained to do so. (Id. at 15.) A search of Johnson's vehicle produced a loaded semi-automatic handgun wrapped in a towel that was hidden on the driver's side of the engine compartment. (Id. at 18.) The gun was photographed, documented, and turned over to the Forensic Unit for further testing. (Id.)

Also following the arrest, police searched the apartment unit in Brigantine where they believed Johnson resided.*fn2 (Id. at 20.) Law enforcement personnel waited outside the apartment, however, until a valid search warrant was obtained to enter. (Id.) During questioning of Johnson at the station, it was further ascertained that he also rented a storage unit in Egg Harbor Township. (Id. at 21.) Johnson consented to a search of his storage unit, which revealed stashed cash. (Id.)

On December 18, 2008, Johnson was indicted on a 141-count indictment for his involvement in drug operations between November 7, 2007 and October 8, 2008. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. D, Johnson Indictment.) On December 22, 2009, Johnson pled guilty before a judge in Atlantic County Superior Court to Count 135 of the Indictment for distributing cocaine in excess of five ounces. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. E, 12/22/09 Trans. of Plea ("Johnson Plea").) Johnson was subsequently sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment on March 29, 2010. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J., Ex. F, Trans. of Sentence ("Johnson Sentencing").)

On August 19, 2011, Johnson filed a Complaint in federal court, alleging violations of his constitutional rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Docket Nos. 1, 6.)*fn3 On April 3, 2012, Defendants filed the instant Motion for Summary Judgment, seeking judgment in their favor on all of Plaintiff's remaining claims. (Docket No. 27.) On April 13, 2012, Johnson filed a Response in Opposition by way of a letter communication with the Court. (Docket No. 28.) In this letter, Plaintiff's sole basis of opposition to Defendants' summary judgment motion was stated as follows:

Plaintiff Lamar Johnson respectfully requests that your Honor rely on it's own, previous determination of November 30, 2011, when ruling on plaintiff's motion for the appointment of pro bono counsel, the court said "The court acknowledges the conclusion of Judge Hillman that plaintiff's complaint demonstrates sufficient merit to withstand immediate dismissal," [] and further "In granting plaintiff leave to proceed in forma pauperis Judge Hillman performed a threshold analysis of the merits of plaintiff's claim against defendant's and found they were not frivolous." For the above stated reasons, plaintiff Johnson request is that the court not grant defendants motion for summary judgment and that the meritorious issues involved be afforded the opportunity for full litigation.*fn4

(Pl.'s Resp. Opp'n.) This issue is now ripe for judicial consideration.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

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 non-moving party's evidence "is to be believed and all justifiable ...


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