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Wennah v. Middlesex County

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 19, 2013

JUSTIN WENNAH and BRIAN STIANCHI, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
MIDDLESEX COUNTY, EDMOND CICCHI, MIDDLESEX COUNTY BOARD OF FREEHOLDERS and JOHN DOES 1-100, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

TONIANNE J. BONGIOVANNI, Magistrate Judge.

This matter comes before the Court upon Plaintiffs' Justin Wennah and Brian Stianchi, on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated ("Plaintiffs"), request for leave to file a Third Amended Complaint [Docket Entry No. 70] to conform their complaint to the requirements of Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County, 132 S.Ct. 1510 (2012). Middlesex County, Edmond Cicchi and Middlesex County Board of Freeholders ("Defendants") oppose Plaintiffs' Motion to Amend [Docket Entry No. 72]. The Court has fully reviewed and considered all arguments made in support of, and in opposition to, Plaintiffs' motion. The Court considers Plaintiffs' motion without oral argument pursuant to Loc.Civ.R. 78.1(b). For the reasons set forth more fully below, Plaintiff's motion is GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Paul M. Takacs initially filed a class action complaint against Middlesex County on February 7, 2008 alleging that Middlesex County's blanket strip search policy violated the Fourth Amendment and laws of New Jersey. The class is currently defined as follows:

All persons who have been placed into custody of the Middlesex County Jail after being charged with non-indictable offenses (such as disorderly persons offenses, traffic infractions, child support warrants and/or civil commitments) and were strip searched upon their transfer and entry into the Middlesex County Jail. The Class period commences on or about February 5, 2006, and extends to the date on which the Defendant is enjoined from or otherwise ceases from, enforcing its unconstitutional policy, practice and custom of conducting strip-searches absent reasonable suspicion. Specifically excluded from the class are Defendant and any and all of its respective affiliates, legal representatives, heirs, successors, employees or assignees. Plaintiffs' Mem. of Law in Supp. of Mot. at 1.

Brian Stianchi later filed a separate complaint (Civil Action No. 09-362) against Middlesex County making the same allegations and claims. A Second Amended Complaint was subsequently filed adding Brian Hode and Justin Wennah as Plaintiffs. [Docket Entry No. 41] By later Consent Orders, the claims of Paul M. Takacs and Brian Hode were dismissed with prejudice. [Docket Entry Nos. 46 and 47] By consent of the parties, Mr. Takac's and Mr. Stianchi's complaints were consolidated. On January 19, 2010, the Court entered an order staying the proceedings until disposition of Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County . The United States Supreme Court rendered its decision in Florence on April 2, 2012. Plaintiffs filed this motion to amend on June 20, 2013.

A. Florence Decision

Plaintiffs' are seeking to file a Third Amended Complaint in order to conform their complaint to the requirements of the recent Supreme Court decision in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of Burlington County, 132 S.Ct. 1510 (2012). In Florence, Petitioner was arrested during a traffic stop after he failed to appear at a hearing to enforce a fine. He was initially detained in the Burlington County Detention Center and later in the Essex County Correctional Facility, but was released once it was determined that the fine had been paid. Petitioner was strip searched at both facilities. Petitioner filed suit under 42 U.S.C. ยง1983 against the government entities that ran the jails and other defendants, alleging Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations, and arguing that persons arrested for minor offenses cannot be subjected to invasive searches unless prison officials have reason to suspect concealment of weapons, drugs or other contraband. The Court granted summary judgment, ruling that strip-searching non-indictable offenders without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment. The Third Circuit reversed and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the Third Circuit's decision. The Supreme Court held that "the search procedures at the county jails struck a reasonable balance between inmate privacy and the needs of the institutions, and thus the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments do not require adoption of the framework and rules petitioner proposes." Id. at 1511.

Plaintiff's specifically rely on Justice Alito's concurrence in which he states, "The Court does not address whether it is always reasonable, without regard to the offense or the reason for detention, to strip search an arrestee before the arrestee's detention has been reviewed by a judicial officer. The lead opinion explicitly reserves judgment on that question. In light of that limitation, I join the opinion of the Court in full." Id. at 1525. Chief Justice Roberts also noted the importance of the possibility of an exception in his concurrence when he stated, "it is important for me that the Court does not foreclose the possibility of an exception to the rule it announces." Id. at 1523.

The Supreme Court further noted in the majority opinion that "the circumstances before the Court, however, do not present the opportunity to consider a narrow exception of the sort Justice Alito describes, which might restrict whether an arrestee whose detention has not yet been reviewed by a magistrate or other judicial officer, and who can be held in available facilities removed from the general population, may be subjected to the types of searches at issue here." Id. at 1523.

B. Plaintiffs' Argument

Plaintiffs argue that the motion to amend should be granted because they were each arrested and detained for minor matters and had not seen a judge prior to being strip-searched. Mr. Stianchi was arrested for child support arrears and Mr. Wennah was arrested for failing to appear at a municipal proceeding. In their proposed Third Amended Complaint, Plaintiffs assert the following new class definition which has been accepted in three other post- Florence cases:

All persons who have been (1) detained at and/or placed in custody of the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center ("MCACC") or any facility under the authority of Middlesex County (2) as a result of being arrested and/or charged with non-indictable offenses such as: civil enforcement offenses, i.e., child support enforcement arrears, traffic offenses, petty disorderly offenses, disorderly persons offenses, misdemeanors, contempt proceedings, failure to pay financial fines, penalties and/or costs in like matters as set forth above, and/or failure to appear at any court proceedings on like matters above; (3) were strip-searched upon their entry into detainment and/or custody at the MCACC and/or were strip-searched prior to an appearance before a judge or judicial officer who had the authority to release the person as referred to above from detainment and/or custody at the MCACC and/or persons who appeared before a judge or judicial officer in the matters referred to above who were not released from detainment and/or custody and were strip-searched as set forth above, and (4) the strip-search was conducted and/or performed according to Middlesex County's blanket strip-search policy, that is, without reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause based on objective and articulable ...

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