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Robert Mitchell v. Township of Willingboro Municipality Government

March 22, 2013

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



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SIMANDLE, Chief District Judge:

This matter is before the Court upon the motion of Defendant Jeffrey Perez to alter judgment. [Docket Item 56.] Specifically, Defendant Perez asks the Court to reconsider its denial of his motion for summary judgment [Docket Items 54 & 55] and instead enter an order granting summary judgment and dismissing Plaintiff Robert Mitchell's complaint. The Court finds as follows:

1. 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. According to the 9-1-1 dispatch transcript, on July 3, 2010 at approximately 7:32 PM, a resident on Hampton Lane in Willingboro made a 9-1-1 call and reported that a dark blue Acura with no license plates had been speeding up and down Hampton Lane. Officer Perez then received a call from dispatch which relayed the information from the 9-1-1 call. Specifically, dispatch told the Defendant that "a dark blue Acura with no plates" was driving up and down Hampton Lane at a high rate of speed. Within seconds, Defendant Perez observed a "teal Honda Accord" with no front license plate, which passed him on Harrington Lane. Defendant Perez reported to dispatch that there were "three or four occupants" in the car and that the vehicle had a Pennsylvania license plate. Defendant Perez noted the vehicle "looks like a blue Honda Accord." Defendant Perez then initiated an investigatory stop of the Plaintiff's vehicle. This stop resulted in Plaintiff's arrest because Plaintiff had two outstanding warrants and had a suspended Pennsylvania driver's license.

2. Plaintiff filed the instant action alleging his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. 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.

3. The Court dismissed several defendants after its sua sponte screening of the complaint pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e). However, the Court found the Plaintiff had sufficiently stated a viable Fourth Amendment claim against Defendant Perez. [Docket Item 5.] Defendant Perez answered the complaint and subsequently moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis of qualified immunity. [Docket Item 34.] The Plaintiff then moved for summary judgment. [Docket Item 37.] In response, Defendant Perez filed a cross motion for summary judgment which also argued he was entitled to qualified immunity. [Docket Item 40.]

4. The Court issued an opinion and order denying all three motions. [Docket Item 54 & 55.] The Court denied Defendant Perez's motion to dismiss because the Plaintiff's complaint sufficiently stated a claim against Defendant Perez for violating his Fourth Amendment rights and qualified immunity was not established on the face of the complaint. The Court then denied Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment because it was in essence seeking discovery sanctions against Defendant Perez and the Plaintiff did not establish the requisite factors under Fed. R. Civ. P. 37(b) for the imposition of default judgment. Finally, the Court denied Defendant Perez's motion for summary judgment because the record did not establish that he was entitled to qualified immunity.

5. Specifically, in denying summary judgment, the Court concluded that the Plaintiff alleged a deprivation of his Fourth Amendment rights and that it would have been clear to a reasonable officer in Defendant Perez's situation that reasonable suspicion did not exist and consequently, stopping Plaintiff's vehicle would be unlawful. In reaching this conclusion, the Court reasoned:

[S]ince the law was clear at the time of the incident that reasonable suspicion was required to conduct an investigatory stop, Defendant Perez can be granted qualified immunity only if his conduct in stopping Plaintiff's car was a violation a reasonable officer could have committed. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff as the non-moving party, the court concludes a reasonable officer would not have conducted an investigatory stop of the Plaintiff in this situation and a jury could conclude reasonable suspicion did not exist.

In looking at the factual record in the aggregate, there are several inconsistencies between the suspicious vehicle reported to dispatch and the Plaintiff's car such that a reasonable officer could conclude that reasonable suspicion did not exist to conduct an investigatory stop. First, the record establishes that, in communicating to Officer Perez before any vehicle was pulled over, dispatch described the offending vehicle as a dark blue Acura with no license plates which was driving up and down Hampton Lane at an excessive rate of speed. By Defendant's own admission, he saw Plaintiff's vehicle "seconds" after the dispatch call. (Statement of Material Facts not in Dispute ¶9.) It is undisputed by the parties that Plaintiff's vehicle was not speeding. If a reasonable officer did see Plaintiff's car just seconds after the dispatch call, he would have expected the vehicle to be traveling at a high rate of speed as that was the unlawful conduct reported by dispatch. Since Plaintiff's car was traveling within the speed limit, a reasonable officer would have concluded that this car was not the offending vehicle reported to dispatch and would not have conducted an investigatory stop.

This is not the only inconsistency between Plaintiff's vehicle and the description of the vehicle given by dispatch. Plaintiff's vehicle was teal, not dark blue, and was a Honda Accord, not an Acura. Plaintiff's vehicle was not on Hampton Lane but he was driving on an adjacent street, which is not probative either way. Plaintiff's vehicle had a rear Pennsylvania license plate whereas the offending car was reported to have no tags. Finally, Plaintiff was traveling with two passengers (his son and son's girlfriend) and dispatch did not report that the driver of the offending vehicle had any additional occupants. [Docket Item 54 at 19-21.] Therefore, the Court concluded that a reasonable officer under these circumstances would have known that stopping Plaintiff's vehicle was unlawful because reasonable suspicion did not exist.

6. Defendant Perez then filed the instant motion to alter judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(e). Defendant Perez argues that the opinion by the Court contained "several oversights with respect to the factual review of the evidence in the record." (Def.s' Br. at 1.) Defendant Perez contends that the Court's view of the facts in the record created an artificial picture of what happened during the vehicular stop. In addition, Defendant Perez argues the Court misapplied the applicable legal standard to the facts at issue. Defendant Perez does not maintain that the Court cited or relied on inapplicable case law. Rather, Defendant Perez relies on a New Jersey Supreme Court case, State v. Golotta, 178 N.J. 205, 213 (2003), and argues that a police officer in a similar situation to Defendant Perez was entitled to qualified immunity. Consequently, Defendant Perez now contends that this Court held him "to a higher standard than those who have been excused before him for the same or similar actions." (Def.'s Br. at 8.) Defendant Perez did not make this argument in his initial moving papers or analyze the factual scenario in Golotta as compared to his own case when he filed his initial motion for summary judgment. Defendant Perez urges the Court to reverse its denial of summary judgment and grant him qualified immunity.

7. Local Civil Rule 7.1(i) governs the Court's review of Plaintiff's motion for reconsideration. Rule 7.1(i) requires the moving party to set forth the factual matters or controlling legal authorities it believes the Court overlooked when rendering its initial decision. L. Civ. R. 7.1(i). To prevail on a motion for reconsideration, the movant must show:

(1) an intervening change in the controlling law; (2) the availability of new evidence that was not available when the court . . . [rendered the judgment in question]; or (3) the need to correct a clear ...


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