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Christian v. Hamilton Jewelers

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 17, 2014

REVEREND RONALD CHRISTIAN, TAMI CHRISTIAN, and EVERETTE CHRISTIAN, Plaintiffs,
v.
HAMILTON JEWELERS, RED BANK POLICE DEPARTMENT, CAPTAIN DARREN MCCONNELL, JOHN/JANE DOES 1-10, CORPORATIONS ABC through XYZ, and BOROUGH OF RED BANK, Defendants.

Cynthia Hardaway, Esq., Military Park Building Newark, NJ. Counsel for Plaintiffs Reverend Christian, Tami Christian, and Everette Christian

Thomas R. Ashley, Esq., Newark, NJ. Counsel for Plaintiffs Reverend Christian, Tami Christian, and Everette Christian

John T. Bazzurro, Esq., Charles John Uliano, Esq., CHAMLIN, ROSEN, ULIANO & WITHERINGTON, PC, West Long Branch, NJ. Counsel for Defendants Red Bank Police Department, Captain, Darren McConnell, and Borough of Red Bank

Daniel J. O'Hern, Jr., Esq., BYRNES O'HERN LLC, Red Bank, NJ. Counsel for Defendants Red Bank Police Department, Captain, Darren McConnell, and Borough of Red Bank.

OPINION

JOSEPH E. IRENAS, Senior District Judge.

This § 1983 and state law torts matter, currently before the Court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment, involves the dissemination of a police notification informing surrounding law enforcement agencies and related organizations of a report of suspicious conduct at a local jewelry store.[1] The notification contained two of the Plaintiffs' DMV photos and identifying information, referred to them as "subjects, " and informed recipients that although no crime was committed, it is possible that the subjects "have committed a theft in other jurisdictions or may be preparing to do so." (Opp'n Br., Ex. M)

Plaintiffs, aggrieved by the miasma of criminality created by the message, argue Defendants' conduct was racially motivated, contrary to proper police procedure, and injured Plaintiffs' standing in their community. Defendants argue that liability cannot attach because Defendants are protected by qualified immunity, and in any event Plaintiffs fail to prove the occurrence of a constitutional violation.

For the reasons outlined below, the Court will grant summary judgment in Defendants' favor. While the United States Constitution, New Jersey common law, and New Jersey Law Against Discrimination clearly protect against racially motivated and unfounded allegations of criminality, the conduct of Defendants did not violate the law.

I.

On May 15, 2010, Plaintiff Reverend Ronald Christian and his wife Tami entered Hamilton Jewelersn ("Hamilton") in Red Bank, New Jersey.[2] (Pls.' Fact ¶ 1)[3] From the moment they entered, they believed they were being stared at and followed because of their African-American race. While Reverend Christian spoke on his cell phone, occasionally exiting and reentering the store, Tami looked at jewelry and spoke with store employees. (Pls.' Fact ¶ 1) At one point the couple went upstairs to use the restroom. (Pls.' Fact ¶ 6) A sales associate followed them and waited outside.

The couple returned downstairs and Tami tried on a $6, 000 watch. (Pls.' Facts ¶¶ 1, 32) Reverend Christian then told a store employee that they had to eat before buying anything, and the couple soon left the store. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 33) The entire visit lasted approximately one hour.[4] (Pls.' Facts ¶ 1)

Minutes after Hamilton closed its doors for the day, the couple returned. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 8) Reverend Christian tried to enter, and after finding the front door locked, asked an employee through the closed door if he could check the restroom for his keys. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 8) The employee checked the restroom himself, did not find any keys, and refused the Christians entry. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 8) Reverend Christian then asked the owner of a neighboring store, referred to by the parties as "Anthony, " if he could assist in gaining entry to Hamilton. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 9) Anthony's attempts were also rebuffed.

After the Christians left, a Hamilton employee called Defendant Red Bank Police Department (the "Department") and reported that a couple who had acted suspiciously while in the store had returned after closing and were refused entry. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 9) The employee asked the Department if a police officer could escort the remaining employees to their cars. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 9) Officer Hicks was quickly dispatched, escorted the employees to their cars, and wrote up an incident report. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 9) Hicks included in his report the license plate number of the Christians' car, as reported by Hamilton employees. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 11)

Two weeks later, employees of non-party Mustillo's Bridal Boutique ("Mustillo's"), located on the same street as Hamilton, reported to the Department that an African-American couple had recently visited the store and acted in a suspicious manner. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 12) Officer Hicks, who is himself African-American, again responded to the call, spoke with Mustillo's employees and wrote a report on his visit. In his report, Officer Hicks noted that the incident "sound[s] similar to an incident that was reported [] at Hamilton Jewelers." (Defs.' Facts ¶ 10; Opp'n Br., Ex. F)

Defendant Captain Darren McConnell, director of the Department's Special Operations Bureau, read the two reports and decided to conduct an investigation. (Pls.' Facts ¶¶ 14, 28) He visited Hamilton on June 2, 2010 and met with Johnny Hillibrandt, a Hamilton employee who helped the Christians during their visit. Hillibrandt told McConnell that he did not believe the couple was interested in buying a watch because they were walking around looking at other items and repeatedly wandered in and out of the store. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 15) Hillibrandt also told McConnell that Reverend Christian made several vulgar statements and asked another sales associate if she was afraid he was "going to steal something, " thereby strengthening Hillibrandt's suspicion. (Pls.' Facts ¶¶ 15, 16) McConnell and Hillibrandt also reviewed Hamilton's surveillance tape from the day of the incident. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 19)

Prior to visiting Hamilton, McConnell ran the license plate number Officer Hicks included in his Hamilton incident report. (Pls.' Fact ¶ 20) After determining that Reverend Christian was the registered owner of the car, McConnell ran Reverend Christian's driver's license and printed a copy of his DMV photo. (Pls.' Fact ¶ 20) McConnell also ran the vehicle's license plate through the Department's Automated Traffic System (ATS) to determine who else drove the vehicle. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 20) ATS informed McConnell that Plaintiff Everette Christian, Reverend Christian's sister, had previously received a summons while operating the vehicle. (Opp'n Br., Ex. H) McConnell subsequently printed her DMV photo. (Pls.' Fact ¶20)

Captain McConnell took the photos with him when he visited Hamilton and showed them to Hillebrandt and Anthony, the neighboring proprietor. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 20; Defs.' Facts ¶ 14) Hillebrandt identified Reverend Christian as the male who had visited the store and stated he was fairly certain the Reverend's companion was Everette. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 21) Anthony was shown the same photos and stated that he was certain that the companion was Everette, but wasn't certain the male was Reverend Christian, yet he added it very well could be. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 21) McConnell, apparently under the assumption that Everette was with Reverend Christian at Hamilton, did not show Hillebrandt or Anthony a photo of anyone other than Reverend Christian and Everette.

McConnell returned to the station to write a supplemental report. (See Br., Ex. C) McConnell ran the Christians' names through the Department's Automated Criminal System (ACS) and learned that the Reverend had a prior shoplifting complaint filed against him and Everette had entries for "ordinance type violations" but no criminal entries. (Defs.' Fact ¶ 15; Pls.' Facts ¶ 22)

McConnell further determined, in light of height disparities between the relevant actors, that different couples visited Hamilton and Mustillo's. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 22)

On June 3, 2010, McConnell prepared a notification titled "Police Information" (the "Information") that he disseminated via email, fax, and New Jersey's Critical Reach System.[5] The Information identified Reverend and Tami Christian by name, included their DMV photos, dates of birth, driver's license numbers, and home addresses, and stated that the Department "received a report of a suspicious incident involving two subjects possibly attempting to commit a distraction theft at a local jewelry store." (Information, Br., Ex. F) The Information then recounted the events of the day of the incident: the subjects "inquired about purchasing a Chanel watch for $6, 000"; "[e]mployees immediately became suspicious"; "the subjects [] returned 10 minutes after store clos[ed]" and "attempted to have a nearby storeowner convince" the employees to open the store, "at one point claim[ing] to have left their keys in the store." (Information, Br., Ex. F)

The Information concluded: "Although no crime occurred in this jurisdiction, this information is being relayed for information purposes as the actors could have committed a theft in other jurisdictions or may be preparing to do so. Any department with information or inquiries contact Capt. Darren McConnell." (Information, Br., Ex. F)

Reverend Christian subsequently found a copy of the Information laying on his desk at his church.[6] (Pls.' Facts ¶ 35) It is unknown who left it there. (Pls.' Facts ¶ 35) He ...


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