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Wells v. Fuentes

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 13, 2014

RICHARD WELLS, Plaintiff,
v.
COLONEL RICK FUENTES, et al., Defendants.

Thomas Bruno, II, Esq., Abramson & Denenberg, PC, Philadelphia, PA, Attorney for Plaintiff Richard Wells,

Roshan Deven Shah, DAG State of New Jersey Office of the Attorney General Trenton, N.J. Attorney for Defendant Trooper Jonathan Anthony.

OPINION

JEROME B. SIMANDLE, Chief District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Trooper Jonathan Anthony's motion for summary judgment. [Docket Item 26.] In this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Plaintiff Richard Wells contends that Trooper Anthony violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution. During the course of a traffic stop and subsequent arrest on an outstanding warrant, Plaintiff alleges that Trooper Anthony used excessive force against him in applying handcuffs too tightly. Defendant's motion principally contends that video footage from Trooper Anthony's patrol car provides incontrovertible proof that Plaintiff never complained about handcuffs being too tight and that Plaintiff never displayed any sign of distress as a result of the handcuffs.

For the reasons discussed below, the Court will grant in part and deny in part Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

On July 17, 2010, Plaintiff was stopped by Trooper Anthony while driving north on Interstate 295. (Pl. Statement of Material Facts ("SMF") [Docket Item 26-1] ¶ 2.) Trooper Anthony stopped Plaintiff for speeding. (Id. ¶ 6.) Plaintiff was unable to produce a valid vehicle registration or insurance card. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10.) Trooper Anthony advised Plaintiff that without valid registration or insurance, Plaintiff's vehicle would be impounded. (Id. ¶ 11.) During the course of the stop, Trooper Anthony learned that there was an outstanding arrest warrant issued for Plaintiff by the Willingboro Municipal Court, stemming from Plaintiff's arrest for disorderly conduct in 1993.[1] (Id. ¶¶ 37-38.) Trooper Mark Giacona arrived to provide backup. (Id. ¶ 43.)

Plaintiff was instructed to exit his vehicle and Trooper Giacona escorted him to the front of the vehicle. (Id. ¶ 48.) Trooper Anthony placed Plaintiff in handcuffs while in the front of the vehicle. (Id. ¶ 49.) The video timestamp on footage from Trooper Anthony's patrol car shows that Plaintiff was handcuffed no earlier than the 12:15:33 mark, when Trooper Anthony can be seen approaching the front of the vehicle, and no later than the 12:16:01 mark, when Plaintiff returns to full view. (Id. ¶ 54; see also Trooper Anthony's Motor Vehicle Recording ("MVR") Footage, Def. Ex. C.) However, because Trooper Anthony's vehicle was located behind Plaintiff's vehicle, the video does not show the actual moment when Trooper Anthony placed Plaintiff in handcuffs. Additionally, the audio of this portion of the video is muffled presumably as the result of the distance from Trooper Anthony's patrol car and vehicles passing on the highway. The Anthony MVR footage stops at 12:37:11.

In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff asserts that he "immediately began complaining to Trooper Anthony that the handcuffs were too tight, and were cutting off his circulation and causing severe pain." (Id. ¶ 52; see also Am. Compl. [Docket Item 11] ¶ 13.) However, during his deposition, Plaintiff testified that he complained to Trooper Anthony that the handcuffs were too tight "roughly a couple of minutes" after they were applied. (SMF ¶ 53.) Plaintiff testified that he complained to Trooper Anthony one or two times before he was placed in the patrol car for transport. (Wells Dep. on Aug. 23, 2013 [Docket Item 26-4] 34:7-14.) Plaintiff described the pain caused by the handcuffs as a "10" on a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being the most painful. (SMF ¶ 51.) He specified pain to his wrists in the area where one would wear a watch. (Wells Dep. 33:18-34:06.) While Plaintiff and Trooper Anthony can be heard throughout the footage discussing various topics, including Plaintiff's insurance and registration, the arrest warrant, the possibility of identity theft, his address, his career, an event he planned for that evening, his personal possessions, at no point does the MVR footage capture Plaintiff complaining about the handcuffs.

The drive from the scene of the traffic stop to the Willingboro Police Station was 14 minutes. (Trooper Anthony Patrol Log, Pl. Ex. E [Docket Item 28] at 3; see also Wells Dep. 34:21-35:9.) Trooper Anthony testified that after Plaintiff was placed in the car for transport, Anthony turned off the video recorder. (Anthony Dep. on Nov. 22, 2013 [Docket Item 26-7] 35:6-13.) Plaintiff testified that when he was in the car, he complained at least four times that the handcuffs were too tight. (Wells Dep. 37:12-18; 38:17-41:12.) Plaintiff also testified that Trooper Anthony told him that he would have to wait until they reached the station to loosen the handcuffs. (Wells Dep. 41:10-12.) Further, Plaintiff testified that Patrolman Burgess told him that the handcuffs were too tight and it would hurt when he removed them. (Wells Dep. 44:22-45:2.) Plaintiff's police report indicates, "No scars, marks, or tattoos." (Uniform Arrest Report, Def. Ex. H [Docket Item 26-11] at 1.)

Plaintiff received medical care for pain to his wrists on July 26, 2010, less than ten days following the incident, by Dr. Roberto Diaz, who diagnosed Plaintiff with "compression injury of the right radial nerve." (Grossinger Note, Pl. Ex. G [Docket Item 28] at 1.) Plaintiff was examined by Dr. Grossinger on August 5, 2010, nearly two weeks following the incident, and Dr. Grossinger opined that, as a result of the handcuffs being applied too tightly on July 17, 2010, Plaintiff suffered from "traumatic tenonsynovitis of the wrists and hands, r/o radial nerve entrapment, r/o median nerve compression, " with "diminished range of motion" and "loss of dexterity." (Id. at 2.)

Plaintiff provided three photographs in support of his claims, which show ligature-type markings. (Def. Ex G. [Docket Item 26-10.]) Plaintiff testified that these marks show the bRUISING CAUSED BY THE HANDCUFFS. (wELLS dEP. 90:15-97:5.) iN Plaintiff's statement to the Office of Professional Standards, he agreed that the ligature-type marks shown in the photographs could also have been caused by handcuffs ...


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