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Lamar Johnson v. City of Atlantic City

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY


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 inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Marino v. Industrial 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, 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).

III. DISCUSSION

Section 1983 provides that:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress[.]

42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute itself does not independently create substantive rights, but rather merely "provides a remedy for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or federal laws." Kopec v. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 775-76 (3d Cir. 2004) (internal citation omitted); see also Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002). Federal law requires a plaintiff to satisfy two steps in order to properly establish a § 1983 claim: (1) the deprivation of a constitutional right or other federal law, and (2) that a "person acting under the color of state law" is responsible for the alleged deprivation. Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 119-20 (1992).

In the instant case, in his Complaint, Plaintiff avers that the Defendant officers in this action violated his constitutional rights by falsely arresting him and searching his property without a warrant or probable cause. (Compl. at 3--4.) In the instant Motion before the Court, Defendants allege that they are entitled to summary judgment because Johnson cannot sustain a cause of action under § 1983 pursuant to the Heck Doctrine and because an arrest warrant was not necessary prior to taking Johnson into custody. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. at 7, 15.) Defendants also move for summary judgment on the basis that they are entitled to qualified immunity. (Id. at 12--15.)

The qualified immunity doctrine serves as an affirmative defense, and the Third Circuit has therefore cautioned the district courts to "resolve any immunity question at the earliest possible stage of any litigation[.]" See Orsatti v. N.J. State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 483 (3d Cir. 1995); Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 587 (1998) ("[Q]ualified immunity is an affirmative defense[.]"); Farmer v. Hayman, No. Civ.A.06-3084, 2008 WL 141104, at *5 n.3 (D.N.J. Jan. 11, 2008) (Simandle, J.) ("In light of the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation, the Court addresses the immunity analysis at the outset."). The Court will therefore begin its analysis with an assessment of Defendants' qualified immunity defense.

A. The Qualified Immunity Doctrine

An officer is entitled to qualified immunity if he reasonably could have believed that his conduct was lawful in light of clearly established law and the information that was in his possession at the time. Palma v. Atl. Cnty., 53 F.Supp.2d 743, 768 (D.N.J. 1999)(internal citations omitted). "In cases involving claims for unlawful arrest . . . , the qualified immunity analysis turns on whether the police officers reasonably but mistakenly concluded that probable cause existed to arrest, detain and initiate the criminal prosecution." Id. In determining whether the doctrine is applicable, however, the plaintiff's subjective beliefs are irrelevant. See Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 636 (1987); Green v. City of Patterson, 971 F. Supp. 891, 901 (D.N.J. 1997). Furthermore, the doctrine provides room for reasonable mistakes in an officer's judgment, and serves to protect "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." Id. (quoting Orsatti, 71 F.3d at 484) (further citations omitted); see also Palma, 53 F.Supp.2d at 768.

In Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982), the Supreme Court established the standard for invoking qualified immunity: "government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded 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." Id. at 818 (internal citations omitted). Subsequently, in Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001), the Supreme Court refined this standard by formulating a two-pronged inquiry into the actions of the officer: (1) whether, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the alleged facts indicate the deprivation of an actual constitutional right; and (2) if so, whether the right was clearly established such that a reasonable officer could have believed that the particular conduct at issue was lawful. Id. at 201, overruled in part on other grounds; see also Street v. Atl. Cnty. Justice Facility, No. Civ.A.09-6062, 2012 WL 273787, at *3 (D.N.J. Jan. 31, 2012) (Rodriguez, J.); McErlean v. Merline, No. Civ.A.07-5681, 2011 WL 540871, at *9 (D.N.J. Feb. 8, 2011) (Bumb, J.); Pagan v. Ogden, No. Civ.A.09-00002, 2010 WL 3058132, at *6 (E.D. Pa. July 30, 2010). In Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009), the Supreme Court held that the sequence of the Saucier inquiry was not mandatory, and found that district courts should exercise their "sound discretion" in determining which prong to address first. Id. at 236; see also Street, 2012 WL 273787 at *3.

Saucier's first prong instructs the Court to consider whether the facts alleged by the plaintiff indicate that the officers' conduct in the instant case violated a constitutional right. Saucier, 533 U.S. at 201. In his Complaint, Johnson alleges that "[o]n October 8, 2008, these officers pulled me over in my car without a warrant, searched my person and my car and home and arrested me without cause!"*fn5 (Compl. at 4.) In essence, Johnson alleges that the defendant officers violated his Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure by falsely arresting him and unlawfully searching his home and vehicle.*fn6 More specifically, Johnson contends that the officers' search and seizure was unlawful because they lacked probable cause and a warrant.*fn7 In response, Defendants assert that they are entitled to qualified immunity for Plaintiff's claims because no constitutional violation occurred since they had probable cause to arrest him and obtained valid warrants prior to searching his car and apartment. (Defs.' Mot. Summ. J. at 12--15.)

Broadly stated, the Fourth Amendment prohibits the unreasonable search and seizure of both a person and his property absent a judicially-sanctioned warrant supported by probable cause.*fn8 See Orsatti, 71 F.3d at 482. In the instant case, Plaintiff's allegations appear to be two-fold: (1) that the defendant officers violated his constitutional rights to be free from an unreasonable search of his property when they searched his vehicle and apartment without a warrant or probable cause; and (2) that the officers violated his constitutional right to be free from an unreasonable seizure of his person when they falsely arrested him.

The Court first considers Plaintiff's claims that the officers' search of his car violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Generally speaking, a valid warrant issued by a judicial officer that is supported by probable cause indicates that the government has taken steps to protect - rather than violate - an individual's constitutional rights. See Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347, 357 (1967). Here, the evidence of record indicates that the search of Johnson's vehicle took place after he was arrested and placed in custody, and after a warrant was obtained to search the vehicle.*fn9 For example, in his Report, Sergeant

Sarkos stated as follows:

[Johnson] was taken into custody, handcuffed, and searched incident to arrest by Detective Rose. . . . The BMW Mr. Johnson was driving was driven to the ACPD Forensic Bay where it was secured by Detective Daryl Dabney. . . . [In the interim,] a search warrant was being prepared by Detective James Scoppa of the Atlantic County Prosecutors Office for . . . the BMW Mr. Johnson had been driving. . . . [S]everal Detectives including myself responded to the ACPD police forensic bay where the BMW had been secured. The search warrant for this vehicle was executed resulting in the recovery of a semi-automatic Taurus handgun. (ACPD Rep. at 20--21.) Plaintiff has introduced no evidence that this obtained warrant was in any way deficient.*fn10 As such, the Court finds that Defendants did not violate Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights when they searched his vehicle.

The Court next considers whether Defendants' search of Johnson's alleged home was unlawful. Similar to the search of Plaintiff's vehicle, the defendant officers obtained a warrant prior to executing their search. In fact, the record indicates that, even though they arrived at the apartment complex several hours earlier, the officers did not enter the apartment itself until a search warrant was obtained to do so. (See ACPD Rep. at 20-21.) Once again, Plaintiff has introduced no evidence indicating that a warrant was lacking or that the warrant issued was in some way invalid.*fn11 Thus, the Court likewise finds that Defendants did not violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights when they searched the apartment.*fn12

Having found that the search of Plaintiff's property was lawful, the Court now considers whether the search and seizure of Johnson's person was likewise constitutional. Johnson contends that the officers pulled him over, arrested him, and searched him without cause. (Compl. at 4.) Given that Johnson was placed under arrest, i.e. seized, before he was searched, the Court begins its analysis with Johnson's seizure.*fn13

"A seizure of the person within the meaning of the Fourth [] Amendment[] occurs when, 'taking into account all of the circumstances surrounding the encounter, the police conduct would have communicated to a reasonable person that he was not at liberty to ignore the police presence and go about his business.'" Kaupp v. Texas, 538 U.S. 626, 629 (2003) (quoting Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 437 (1991); Michigan v. Chesternut, 486 U.S. 567, 569 (1988)). It is clear that the formal arrest of an individual constitutes a seizure for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Anderson, 2012 WL 3235163 at *6 (citing Torres v. McLaughlin, 163 F.3d 169, 174 (3d Cir. 1998); Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19 (1968)("It is beyond dispute that the Fourth Amendment has been construed to include events both before and after a formal arrest.")). All seizures of a person, such as a formal arrest, must be supported by probable cause. See Michigan v. Summers, 452 U.S. 692, 696 (1981) (citing Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200, 207 (1979)). If probable cause was absent to form the basis of an arrest, an individual can bring a § 1983 claim for false arrest. See Criss v. Crossgrove, No. Civ.A.04-2244, 2007 WL 542228, at *7 (D.N.J. Feb. 16, 2007) (citing Ramirez v. United States, 998 F. Supp. 425, 430 (D.N.J. 1998)). "Therefore, a defense to a false arrest claim is the establishment of probable cause." Criss, 2007 WL 542228, at *7 (citing Dowling v. City of Phila., 855 F.2d 136, 141 (3d Cir. 1988)). Probable cause is present when, considering the totality of the circumstances, "the facts and circumstances within the officer's knowledge were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing a crime had been committed." Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 228 (1991); see also Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 818 (3d Cir. 1997).

In this case, the record is unclear as to whether the defendant officers actually had an arrest warrant for Johnson at the time that he was formally arrested. In the submitted police reports detailing the arrest, the officers merely state that, while Sergeant Sarkos and Detective Rose were visually surveying Johnson, Sergeant Ruark was "preparing" an arrest warrant to be sworn out before the magistrate. (See ACPD Rep. at 14, 16, 20.) More specifically, Sergeant Ruark stated as follows:

[Johnson's] vehicle was placed under surveillance by Dsgt. James Sarkos and Det. Timothy Rose, while I went to prepare the warrant (0102 W 2008 008233) then swear out the warrant with Judge Garofolo. While this was occurring Sarkos observed Johnson enter the BMW vehicle and leave the complex. Sarkos conferred with me if I wanted Johnson stopped and arrested. I advised him the warrant was prepared and to place Johnson under arrest.

(Id. at 14.) Similarly, Sergeant Sarkos stated as follows in his report:

Sgt. Ruark requested surveillance be set up on this vehicle as an arrest warrant was going to be executed for the male. . . . At approximately 1240 hours I observed an individual later identified as Lamar Johnson walking from the Spartan Harbor Apartments and entering the BMW. . . . Detective Rose and I followed the vehicle. . . . It was decided by Sgt. Ruark (via communication between him and I by telephone) and I that this vehicle would be stopped and Mr. Johnson was to be taken into custody. (Id. at 20.) Although Judge Garofolo eventually approved and authorized the arrest warrant, these reports do not indicate whether the warrant had actually been authorized at the time of Johnson's arrest.

The Fourth Amendment requires an arrest warrant issued by a judicial officer to be supported by probable cause. See Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10, 13--14 (1948); Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 238 (1983). Thus, in order for the Superior Court Judge to have approved and issued the warrant for Johnson's arrest, he must have made a determination that it was supported by probable cause. Therefore, if the officers did actually secure the warrant prior to arresting Johnson, then probable cause existed to effectuate the arrest.

However, even if the defendant officers did not actually have the arrest warrant prior to seizing Johnson, the arrest would nonetheless be lawful if it was supported by probable cause. It is well established that an officer may conduct a warrantless arrest if the arrest was based on probable cause. See United States v. Pickford, 252 F. App'x 440, 443 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 152 (2004))("[A] warrantless arrest by a law officer is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment where there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed."); see also United States v. Brown, 33 F. App'x 606, 608 (3d Cir. 2002); United States v. McGlory, 968 F.2d 309, 342 (3d Cir. 1992) (citing United States v. Watson, 423 U.S. 411, 421 (1976) ("Law enforcement authorities do not need a warrant to arrest an individual in a public place so long as they have probable cause to believe that person has committed a felony.")). "Probable cause to support an arrest exists whenever reasonably trustworthy information or circumstances within an arresting officer's knowledge are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution to conclude that an offense has been or is being committed by the person being arrested." United States v. Laville, 480 F.3d 187, 194 (3d Cir. 2007) (citing Draper v. United States, 358 U.S. 307, 313 (1959); United States v. Myers, 308 F.3d 251, 255 (3d Cir. 2002)).

The Third Circuit has previously recognized that probable cause to arrest can arise from the observation of a suspect's ongoing participation in criminal activity by means of an active undercover investigation. See United States v. Burton, 288 F.3d 91, 97 (3d Cir. 2002). Here, Sergeant Ruark - the officer in charge of the drug investigation involving Johnson - developed probable cause to arrest Johnson from the information he gleaned over the course of the seven-month-long investigation. (ACPD Rep. at 14.) In particular, Sergeant Ruark and the other investigating officers observed and collected information from several confidential informants that conducted controlled drug buys with Johnson. (See ACPO Inv. Reps.) Several of these "sting" drug deals with Johnson were monitored by the investigation team through a digital recorder. (Id.) During these monitored drug exchanges, the officers observed Johnson in the same vehicle in which he was subsequently arrested. (Id.) Also as a result of these controlled buys, the investigating officers collected crack cocaine that Johnson sold to the confidential informants. (Id.) Furthermore, Sergeant Ruark obtained a wiretap on Johnson's cell phone during the course of the investigation to monitor his involvement in the drug scheme. (ACPD Rep. at 14.) A reasonable officer observing all this conduct could certainly conclude that Johnson had and was continuing to commit criminal offenses. As such, even without an arrest warrant, Sergeant Ruark had probable cause to arrest Johnson on October 8, 2008.

Sergeant Ruark, however, was not the officer that actually placed Johnson under arrest. Rather, Sergeant Sarkos and Detective Rose were the officers on the scene that arrested Johnson while Sergeant Ruark was busy swearing out the arrest warrant before the magistrate. The question before the Court therefore is whether Sergeant Ruark's probable cause basis to arrest Johnson could be imputed to Sergeant Sarkos and Detective Rose.

"Under the collective knowledge doctrine, the knowledge of one law enforcement officer may be imputed to the officer who actually conducted the seizure, search, or arrest." United States v. Dono, No. Civ.A.10-763, 2011 WL 941465, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 17, 2011) (citing United States v. Whitfield, 634 F.3d 741 (3d Cir. 2010)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also United States v. Haines, No. Civ.A.11-706-01, 2012 WL 1856495, at *1--2 (E.D. Pa. May 16, 2012). The collective knowledge doctrine exists because it "makes little sense from a practical standpoint" to base the legitimacy of an arrest or stop solely on what the officer who first approaches a suspect knows, "rather than on the collective knowledge of all the officers who participate directly" in the search or arrest. United States v. Cook, 277 F.3d 82, 86 (1st Cir. 2002). Indeed, the Third Circuit has recently acknowledged that "[i]t would make little sense to decline to apply the collective knowledge doctrine in a fast-paced, dynamic situation . . . in which the officers worked together as a unified and tight-knit team, [because] it would be impractical to expect an officer in such a situation to communicate to the other officers every fact that could be pertinent[.]" Whitfield, 634 F.3d at 746.*fn14

The Court of Appeals has cautioned, however, that "[p]robable cause exists only if the statements made by fellow officers are supported by actual facts that can satisfy the probable cause standard," and that "statements by fellow officers conveying that there is probable cause for a person's arrest, by themselves, cannot provide the facts and circumstances necessary to support a finding of probable cause." Rogers v. Powell, 120 F.3d 446, 453 (3d Cir. 1997) (citing United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221, 231 (1985)); see also United States v. Belle, 593 F.2d 487, 497 n.15 (3d Cir. 1979) ("The collective knowledge of the investigating officers is measured in determining probable cause" for an arrest). Thus, the Third Circuit has made clear that:

The legality of a seizure based solely on statements issued by fellow officers depends on whether the officers who issued the statements possessed the requisite basis to seize the suspect. Moreover, an officer can lawfully act solely on the basis of statements issued by fellow officers if the officers issuing the statements possessed the facts and circumstances necessary to support a finding of the requisite basis.

Rogers, 120 F.3d at 453 (citing Hensley, 469 U.S. at 231; Whiteley v. Warden, 401 U.S. 560, 568 (1971)).*fn15

The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently applied the collective knowledge doctrine in a largely similar factual scenario in United States v. Chavez, 534 F.3d 1338 (10th Cir. 2008).*fn16 In Chavez, the Drug Enforcement Agency ("DEA") conducted a several months-long investigation into drug operations in New Mexico. Id. at 1340. During the course of the investigation, the DEA utilized confidential informants, wiretaps on suspects' cell phones, and controlled drug buys. Id. at 1341. Based on information supplied to them by a confidential informant, the DEA requested a New Mexico State police officer to assist them in their investigation by monitoring and performing a pre-planned traffic stop of the suspects on their way back from a planned drug deal. Id. Prior to the stop, the DEA agents provided the officer with the license plate number and vehicle description, the number of suspected occupants, and informed him that the vehicle was transporting drugs. Id. at 1342. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit held that the DEA agents possessed the requisite probable cause to arrest the defendant based on the knowledge they had gleaned from their investigation. Id. at 1344. The Tenth Circuit further found that this determination of probable cause could be imputed to the patrol officer, regardless of whether he was aware of all the facts of the underlying investigation, because "the aspects of the DEA investigation that [were] pertinent to the probable cause inquiry" were known to the agent that instructed him to stop the vehicle, and he "acted on the strength of the DEA's probable cause when he stopped and searched [the] truck." Id. at 1347.

Similar to Chavez, in the instant case, Sergeant Ruark requested Sergeant Sarkos and Detective Rose to assist him in the surveillance of Johnson because he was going to swear out his arrest warrant before a magistrate. (See ACPD Rep. 14, 16, 20.) According to the officers' reports, Ruark advised Sarkos and Rose that Johnson was the wanted subject of an ongoing investigation by his team, and instructed them to monitor Johnson while he prepared the arrest warrant. (Id. at 16, 20.) Sergeant Ruark also provided Sarkos and Rose with relevant background information, including the make, model, color and license plate number of Johnson's car, as well as the exact address of the apartment unit that he frequented in Brigantine. (Id. at 14, 16, 20.)

The record indicates that Sarkos and Rose were in continuous contact with Ruark during the surveillance. (Id. at 16, 20.) When Johnson left the apartment complex in his vehicle and began to travel to Atlantic City, Sergeant Sarkos called Sergeant Ruark for further instruction. (Id. at 14, 20.) At this point, Ruark instructed Sarkos and Rose to detain and arrest Johnson, and the officers did so based on Ruark's instruction. (Id. at 14, 16, 20.) Thus, Sarkos and Rose acted on the strength of Ruark's probable cause - and pursuant to his instruction - when they detained and arrested Johnson. While Sarkos and Rose may not have been privy to all the facts of the investigation which amounted to probable cause, "it is well established [] that the arresting officer need not possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the facts supporting probable cause, but can instead rely on an instruction to arrest delivered by other officers possessing probable cause." United States v. Burton, 288 F.3d 91, 99 (3d Cir. 2002). As such, regardless of whether or not the defendant officers physically had an arrest warrant in their possession, they did not violate Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights because their collective knowledge of the situation provided the requisite probable cause to support his arrest.

Finally, the Court considers whether the defendant officers violated Johnson's Fourth Amendment rights when they searched his person, and, as a result, uncovered contraband. According to the record, immediately after Johnson was handcuffed, Detective Rose observed him bend over to his left side. (ACPD Rep. at 16.) Rose recognized this maneuver as an attempt to conceal a weapon or contraband, and therefore conducted a pat-down of Johnson's person. (Id.) During the search, Rose uncovered a bag filled with crack cocaine and a large wad of cash. (Id.) It has long been established that a search incident to an arrest is valid if the arrest itself was valid. See United States v. Goode, 309 F. App'x 651, 654 (3d Cir. 2009) (citing Segura v. United States, 468 U.S. 796, 824 n.15 (1984), which noted that the validity of searches incident to arrest has been settled since Agnello v. United States, 269 U.S. 20 (1925)); see also United States v. Brown, 33 F. App'x 606, 608 (3d Cir. 2002) (internal citation omitted). As discussed in extensive detail above, Johnson's arrest was supported by probable cause, and was therefore valid.

Accordingly, it follows that any search of Johnson's person conducted incident to his arrest was likewise lawful. Thus, the defendant officers did not violate Johnson's constitutional rights when they searched his person.

Based on the above, the Court finds that the defendant officers did not violate Johnson's constitutional rights under these circumstances. As such, Sergeant Ruark, Sergeant Sarkos, and Detective Rose are entitled to shield themselves from liability for their actions here pursuant to the doctrine of qualified immunity.*fn17 Accordingly, summary judgment will be entered in Defendants' favor on the entirety of Plaintiff's claims against the remaining Defendants.*fn18

An appropriate Order follows.

NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

At Camden, New Jersey


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