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Pettway v. City of Vineland

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 14, 2015


BEGELMAN ORLOW & MELLETZ, Paul R. Melletz, Esq., Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Former Counsel for Plaintiffs.

BARRETT AND PAVLUK, LLC, Judson B. Barret, Esq., Ocean, New Jersey, Counsel for Defendants City of Vineland & Police Chief, Timothy Codispoti

THE MacMAIN LAW GROUP, LLC, Brian H. Leinhauser, Esq., Charles R. Starnes, Esq., Malvern, PA, Counsel for Defendants Gamaliel "Gami" Cruz, Charles Mackafee, Victor Rizzo, Robert DiMarchi, and Felipe Laboy

LAW OFFICE OF WILLIAM P. FLAHIVE, William P. Flahive, Esq., Lambertville, NJ, Counsel for Robert Magee.


JOSEPH E. IRENAS, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff Maurice Pettway brought this civil rights action against the City of Vineland, Vineland's Police Chief, and individual police officers based on an allegedly malicious prosecution of Plaintiff.

Currently pending before the Court are three separate motions for summary judgment filed by Defendants.[1] In addition, Defendants Cruz, Mackafee, Rizzo, DiMarchi, and Laboy have moved for sanctions under Rule 11 against Plaintiff and Plaintiff's former counsel, Paul Melletz, Esq. of Begelman Orlow & Melletz.

For the reasons explained herein, Defendants' motions for summary judgment will be GRANTED. The motion for sanctions will be GRANTED as to Plaintiff, but DENIED as to Mr. Melletz.


The Court recites those facts relevant to the pending motions.[2]

On August 5, 2010, a confidential informant called Defendant Detective Gamliel Cruz at the Vineland Police Department with a tip that a black male subject would be driving a gold-colored Lincoln LS with N.J. tags ZMH10V that day, and that this individual would be in possession of a firearm or cocaine hidden in the car. (Defs. Cruz, et al.'s Statement of Relevant Undisputed Facts ("D.S.F.") at ¶ 1)[3] The informant also stated that this individual would be wearing khaki shorts and a grey and white striped shirt, and that the car would be parked in front of 119 W. Grape St. in the City of Vineland. (Id.) Defendant Officer Robert Magee claims he overheard the conversation and said that he would respond to the area. (Magee Police Rpt. at 1, Ex. 3 to Defs. Cruz, et al.'s Motion)

At the Grape St. address, Defendant Magee found the Lincoln and observed a man, who matched the informant's description, and a woman, who Magee recognized from prior narcotics investigations as Erica Santiago, enter the Lincoln. (Id.) Magee followed the vehicle and decided to conduct a motor vehicle stop. (Id.) After asking the driver for his license and registration, Magee identified the man as Maurice Pettway. (Id. at 2)

Defendant Officer Felipe Laboy, who assisted in the motor vehicle stop, informed Magee that Santiago had an outstanding warrant for her arrest.[4] (Id.) As Magee placed Santiago under arrest, K9 Officer Charles Mackafee, whom Magee had also called to the scene, arrived with his K9 partner. (Id.) The ensuing dog-sniff indicated an odor of narcotics coming from the vehicle's driver-side front door. (Id. at 5-6) Plaintiff refused to consent to a search of the car and the officers sent for a tow truck. (D.S.F. ¶ 7) The officers impounded the vehicle and transported both Plaintiff and Santiago to the Vineland Police Department. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8) At some point Magee learned that there was a Pennsylvania detainer warrant out on Plaintiff and that Plaintiff had four prior felony convictions. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 16; M. Pettway N.J. Criminal History Rpt., Ex 12 to Defs. Cruz, et al.'s Motion) After arriving at the police station, Santiago paid the amount outstanding on her warrant and was released. (Id.) Plaintiff was processed and transported to the Cumberland County Jail. (Magee Police Rpt. at 2)

On August 6, 2010, Magee applied for, and was granted, a search warrant for the car Plaintiff had been driving. (Magee Aff. in Support of Search Warrant for Pl.'s Vehicle at 4, Ex. 1 to Defs. Cruz, et al.'s Motion) Magee, along with Defendant Officers DiMarchi and Rizzo, executed the search warrant that same day. (D.S.F. ¶ 10) In the car's glove box, they discovered a hidden compartment behind the dashboard that contained a black handgun and loaded magazine. (Id.) On the floor of the vehicle, the officers found a marijuana grinder and scale concealed in a fake energy drink can. (Id. ¶ 11) Last, they found numerous blue wax bags in the trunk of the car. (Id. ¶ 12) The officers ran the gun's serial number through the National Crime Information Center and found out that the gun had been reported as stolen. (Magee Police Rpt. at 2) Magee then contacted the Vineland Municipal Court Clerk and asked her to authorize warrants for Plaintiff for the following charges: (1) unlawful possession of a weapon, (2) possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, and (3) receiving stolen property. (Id.) Magee also sought a summons for Plaintiff for possession of drug paraphernalia. (Id.) Ms. Santiago was charged with receiving stolen property, unlawful possession of a weapon, and possession of drug paraphernalia. (D.S.F. ¶ 18)

Although the circumstances are not entirely clear from the parties' submissions, it appears that Plaintiff's criminal charges were terminated in Plaintiff's favor some time before June 2012, when Plaintiff retained Mr. Melletz as counsel.[5] On January 24, 2013, Plaintiff filed the instant suit asserting claims for malicious prosecution and conspiracy to violate his civil rights against Defendants Magee, Cruz, Mackafee, Rizzo, DiMarchi, and Laboy (collectively, "Officer Defendants"), and municipal liability claims against Defendant Police Chief Codispoti and the City of Vineland (collectively, "Municipal Defendants").[6] The Complaint alleges that the officers fabricated evidence in order to institute false charges against Plaintiff without probable cause. (Compl. ¶¶ 38-40)

Mr. Melletz obtained copies of Officer Defendants' police reports on May 24, 2013. On October 15, 2013, Defense counsel sent Mr. Melletz a letter stating that Plaintiff's case was without merit and informing Mr. Melletz that Defendants would seek fees and costs under Rule 11 if Plaintiff did not promptly dismiss the case. (10/15/2013 Ltr., Ex. 19 to Defs. Cruz, et al.'s Motion) Mr. Melletz responded that he and Plaintiff believed there to be a reasonable basis for the suit and would not drop the case. (11/6/2013 Ltr., Ex. 20 to Defs. Cruz, et al.'s Motion) Defendants then filed their first motion for Rule 11 sanctions on January 7, 2014, which the Court dismissed without prejudice.[7] (Order Dismissing Without Prejudice Motions for Sanctions, Docket No. 39) Plaintiff's opposition to that motion, submitted on February 4, 2014, included a statement of facts signed by Mr. Melletz and a Certification from Plaintiff stating that the police had planted the gun in the car.

On April 2, 2014, Mr. Melletz received new evidence from Defense counsel that caused him to doubt his client's truthfulness. (Melletz Counter Statement of Material Facts ("M.C.S.F.") at ¶ 17) Apparently, in the weeks following his initial detention, Plaintiff made a number of phone calls from prison to Ms. Santiago. Recordings of these calls, which Defendants obtained after subpoenaing the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office, show Plaintiff's concerns over both the discovery of the gun and the charges brought against Ms. Santiago. (See Pettway Prison Calls, Exs. 21 & 22 to Defs. Cruz et al.'s Motion) On August 8, 2010, Plaintiff tells Ms. Santiago to "get out the house" because "they found it" and brought charges against both him and Ms. Santiago. ( Id., Call No. 881V10J8.v10) During further calls on August 8 and 9, Plaintiff says that he will take all the charges and agrees to write an affidavit "so [Santiago] cannot be charged." ( Id., Call Nos. 881V10JC.v10, 891S1003.v10) He says that someone must have snitched on him. ( Id., Call No. 881S101D.v10) When Ms. Santiago asks who knew that he "carr[ied] that there, " Plaintiff explains that he "got that from Mike.... He gave me that gun." (Id.) At one point, acknowledging that the calls were being recorded, Plaintiff says: "I know they listening. That was my gun. Period." ( Id., Call No. 891U10Z4.v10)

After receiving the recordings, Mr. Melletz informed the Court that this new evidence placed his office into an "unresolvable conflict" (4/28/2014 Ltr., Docket No. 41), and subsequently filed a motion to withdraw from the case, which the Court granted ...

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