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Harrison v. City of Atlantic City

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 23, 2017

CHARLIE HARRISON, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ATLANTIC CITY, MICHAEL OLDROYD, ANTHONY ALOSI, MICHELLE CLARKE, REBECCA SEABROOKE, and BOUNTHAMAL THAVISACK, Defendants.

          JENNIFER ANN BONJEAN ASHLEY BLAIR COHEN BONJEAN LAW GROUP PLLC On behalf of Plaintiff

          A. MICHAEL BARKER TODD J. GELFAND BARKER, GELFAND & JAMES LINWOOD GREENE On behalf of Defendant City of Atlantic City

          CHRISTINE P. O'HEARN WILLIAM F. COOK SHAWN C. HUBER BROWN & CONNERY, LLP On behalf of the individual officer Defendants

          OPINION

          NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.

         This case involves claims of excessive force by City of Atlantic City police officers, and claims of municipal liability against Atlantic City for its practices and customs which allegedly foster a culture that permits use of excessive force. Presently before the Court are the motions of Defendants for summary judgment in their favor. For the reasons expressed below, Defendants' motions will be denied in part and continued in part.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, Charlie Harrison, alleges the following events that serve as the basis for his Fourth Amendment violation claims against the Defendant police officers and the City of Atlantic City:[1]

         During the early morning hours of November 14, 2012, Plaintiff was evicted from the Atlantic Club Casino where he had been playing craps. It is undisputed that Plaintiff was intoxicated when he was escorted from the premises. Atlantic Club Casino security called the Atlantic City Police Department (“ACPD”) to report that Plaintiff was intoxicated and had left the property driving a black Mercedes.

         According to Defendant Oldroyd, at approximately 2:07 a.m., he spotted Plaintiff's black Mercedes mini-van which matched the description given out by police communications minutes earlier. After following Plaintiff's car for a period of time with his emergency lights activated, Defendant Oldroyd effectuated a so-called “high risk” stop of Plaintiff's car at Virginia and Pacific Avenues. What transpired after Plaintiff stopped his vehicle is hotly contested.

         Plaintiff testified that he was traveling east after turning off Pacific Avenue and was forced to make a U-turn when he reached the boardwalk. After turning around and driving back toward Pacific Avenue, Plaintiff noticed that he was being followed by police vehicles with their emergency lights on. Plaintiff did not hear any sirens and the officers gave conflicting testimony about whether their sirens were on (e.g., Defendant Oldroyd testified that he activated his siren while Defendant Alosi testified that no sirens were activated). According to Plaintiff, after stopping his car at a red light, a male officer walked up to the window and ordered him out of the car. Plaintiff complied with the order and began to walk with his hands up toward the male officer who was standing in front of his police vehicle parked behind Plaintiff's car. According to Plaintiff, when he reached the male officer, he was punched in the face multiple times by the officer. Plaintiff testified that he was then pulled to the ground by Defendant Clark's K-9 partner who bit him on the back of the knee. When he fell to the ground, a gang of officers assaulted him. Plaintiff testified that he did not resist and did not even defend himself: “When I walked to them, my hands was up. I think they told me to put my hands up. And when I got to them. It was just a punch. Then it was another, and another punch, and I just stood there like a speed bag, and I took punches, and then the dog came, and the dog grabbed me behind the leg and then I fell. And when I fell, the officer fell, and then it was, like, my arm was bent all the way up. And then it was like a knee in my shoulder or something like that. And then it was like a headlock, and then it was, like, more punches. And then I blacked out.” Plaintiff recalls regaining consciousness when he was thrown into the backseat of a police car. Plaintiff recalled hearing some of the officers laughing before he blacked out.

         Plaintiff's medical reports and photographs reveal that he suffered significant physical injuries during his arrest. Plaintiff received medical care at the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center immediately after his arrest. The treating emergency room physician noted that Plaintiff “sustained injury to the head, contusion, hematoma, pain, swelling, tenderness, lateral aspect of left and posterior aspect of left knee, abrasion, laceration.” The physician further noted deep lacerations to the posterior aspect of Plaintiff's left leg and that contusions to his right eye and right side of his face were “deep” and “severe.” The swelling to Plaintiff's face was so pronounced that the doctor was unable to assess his eyesight. In his Atlantic County Justice Facility booking photo, Plaintiff's face reveals pronounced swelling, bruising, and a significant abrasion to the right side of his face. Both of Plaintiff's eyes are completely shut in his booking photo. (See Docket No. 146 at 3-5.)

         Defendants relate a different version of events. Defendants contend that Plaintiff failed to adhere to their signals and continued driving ignoring the clear direction to pull his care over. When Plaintiff's vehicle eventually came to a stop, Defendant Clark, who had also responded to the scene, pulled alongside Plaintiff's vehicle and ordered him to exit. After responding in a verbally assaultive and aggressive manner, Plaintiff exited his vehicle and approached Defendant Oldroyd.

         Defendant Oldroyd attempted to handcuff Plaintiff, but Plaintiff pulled away causing both men to fall to the ground. Immediately after hitting the ground, Defendant Oldroyd became incapacitated when he temporarily lost feeling in his right arm. Plaintiff continued to resist and ignored commands of Defendant Oldroyd and additional officers who had arrived to assist. With an incapacitated officer on the ground and a resisting arrestee, Defendant Clark made the split-second decision to utilize her K-9 partner to apprehend Plaintiff. (See Docket No. 133-19 at 2.)

         Plaintiff was charged and subsequently indicted for aggravated assault in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:12-1(b)(5), resisting arrest through physical force or violence in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(a)(3)(a), and eluding in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2(b). Pursuant to a negotiated settlement with the Atlantic County prosecutor, Plaintiff pled guilty to and was convicted of eluding. All other charges were dismissed.

         Plaintiff alleges that the defendant officers used excessive force in his arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiff also contends that Atlantic City is liable under Monell v. New York City Dep't of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978) because Atlantic City has a widespread practice or custom of permitting its officers, including the individual defendants here, to employ excessive force without fear of discipline.

         Defendants have moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims. The individual Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity on Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claims because no reasonable jury would conclude that their use of force was not objectively reasonable. Atlantic City argues that it cannot be held liable under Monell because no material disputed facts support Plaintiff's claim that a policy or custom of Atlantic City caused Plaintiff harm. Plaintiff has opposed both motions.

         DISCUSSION

         A. ...


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