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Walker v. Saunders

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

October 24, 2017

MICHAEL HELLER, et al., Defendants.

          THE O'HANLON LAW FIRM By: Stephen T. O'Hanlon, Esq. Attorneys for Plaintiff

          MAYFIELD TURNER O'MARA & DONNELLY, P.C. By: Francis X. Donnelly, Esq. Robert J. Gillispie, Jr., Esq. Attorneys for Defendants



         In this § 1983 suit, Plaintiff Kathleen Walker asserts that Defendant Winslow Township police officers violated her federal constitutional rights when they responded to a domestic dispute call to Walker's home, and subsequently arrested Walker on a disorderly persons charge.[1]

         Defendants move for summary judgment.[2] For the reasons stated herein, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


         In the evening of July 28, 2014, Defendant Winslow Township Police Officers Heller, Saunders, and Mueller responded to Plaintiff Walker's home, dispatched on a domestic dispute call. (Gillispie Cert. Ex. A) It is undisputed that Walker lived in the house with her long-term boyfriend, Dante Wilson, their two young children (aged 10 and 5 years old at the time), and Wilson's daughter, Chante Hitchens, who was approximately 20 years old at the time. (Gillispie Cert. Ex. A; Defendants' Statement of Undisputed Facts, “DSUF”, ¶ 2; Walker Dep. p. 6-7, 14-15, 34, 52, 71)

         Hitchens was the person who called the police (DSUF ¶ 8), asserting that Plaintiff Walker was denying her access to the home. (Gillispie Cert. Ex. A; Hitchens Dep. p. 13-15, 33) Wilson, who serves in the New Jersey National Guard, was away on a two-week training exercise. (Wilson Dep. p. 48; Walker Dep. p. 33)

         When the officers arrived at the house, Hitchens was standing by her car in the driveway. (Gillispie Cert. Ex. A; Hitchens Dep. p. 16) The officers first spoke with Hitchens, who explained that she wanted to get into the house to get her belongings. (Hitchens Dep. p. 16-17) She also told the officers that she had received “harassing” and “threatening text messages” from Plaintiff, and that different police officers had been called to the house the day before because Plaintiff was not allowing Hitchens into the house. (Saunders Dep. p. 10-11)[3]

         Defendant Saunders testified that he determined that Hitchens lived at the house by looking at her driver's license (which listed the address of the house as her address), and that the officers were “invited onto the property” by Hitchens. (Saunders Dep. p. 17, 13) Officers Saunders and Heller then went to the front door of the house.

         Officer Mueller testified that while Saunders and Heller were knocking on the front door, he “decided to walk around back to see if I could see into the house and see if we could have contact.” (Mueller Dep. p. 7) He further testified that he had “no permission to go on the property, ” but he walked from the front yard, through the side yard and into the backyard of the property in an “attempt to make contact with the other party in a domestic dispute.” (Id., p. 7-9) Mueller further testified,

[w]hen we arrived and we were told of the incident between mother and daughter, we needed to speak to the mother.
So we went to the house to make contact with the mom, make sure she was okay, there wasn't some kind of incident where she was injured or hurt.
. . .
Due to the situation being heated, the way Hitchens was upset about things, we just had to speak to both parties and make sure everything was okay.

(Mueller Dep. p. 6-7) Officer Saunders' report similarly stated, “Ptlm. Muller [sic] walked around back and attempted to make contact at the back door with negative results.” (Gillispie Cert. Ex. A)

         Plaintiff Walker testified that she was upstairs in the house bathing her daughter when she heard “pounding, ” or “banging” on the front door. (Walker Dep. p. 56, 71) She answered the door, and Officer Saunders “asked” if he and Officer Heller could “come in[to the house] and talk.” (Id., p. 56) Walker undisputedly said yes, and allowed Officers Saunders and Heller into the foyer of the house. (DSUF ¶¶ 11-12) Officer Saunders' Master Incident Report states that “Walker answered the door and invited all three (3) officers inside the residence.” (Gillispie Cert. Ex. A; see also Saunders Dep. p. 46) Plaintiff Walker disputes that she invited the third officer, Officer Mueller, into the house. (See Hitchens Dep. p. 18; Walker Dep. p. 56)

         Nonetheless, Walker testified that “about a minute after [Officers Saunders and Heller] entered my house and shut the door, about a minute later Officer Mueller entered. So at that time all three officers were standing right in the foyer area.” (Walker Dep. p. 57)

Walker further testified, '[t]he only officer that spoke to me at all was Officer Saunders. I [told him] . . . Chante [Hitchens] made an agreement . . . that she wasn't going to return [to the house] until her father got home. . . . And [Saunders] said I don't care. She changed her mind. She has that right. This is her residence. . . . And he said . . . she can come in and out of here whenever she wants and . . . there's nothing you can do about it. And I said okay.

(Walker Dep. p. 56-57)

         All parties agree that the situation escalated quickly.[4]According to Officer Mueller, “[o]nce we [spoke] to [Walker], we don't get a word in edgewise. . . . [A]sking questions and no response and we're not getting anywhere with our conversation and she's continuing to get louder and point and get closer.” (Mueller Dep. p. 15-16)

         Officer Saunders similarly testified, “[w]e tried to talk to Ms. Walker but she was being aggressive towards us, belligerent, yelling, invading my personal space, pointing her finger, waving her arms.” (Saunders Dep. p. 24)

         Hitchens also testified that, from where she was standing outside of the house, she could hear Walker “yelling and screaming.” (Hitchens Dep. p. 18)

         Walker testified that after Officer Saunders told her that she “didn't have any right to forbid [Hitchens] from coming in, ” she “said, then get the hell out of my house because he kept saying I don't care. I said get the hell out of my house.” (Walker Dep. p. 57)

         When asked at her deposition whether she “raised her voice” at this time, Walker testified, “I might talk loud and somebody might interpret that in a different way. I did not believe I was raising my voice but [the officers] may have.” (Id. p. 62)[5] Walker unequivocally testified, however, that she did not point in the officers' direction, nor walk towards them, nor invade their personal space. (Id. p. 63-64)

         According to Walker,

[f]inally I said, get the hell out of my house. And when I said get out of my house . . . Officer Mueller charged me and pushed me up against the wall and then turned me around and put handcuffs on me. And I said what are you doing. He told me to shut up. He told me he was going to take me . . . to jail. . . . And I said you can't take me to jail. I didn't do anything. He said, I'm sick of your mouth. I'm going to teach you a lesson. Then he took me out [of the house].

(Walker Dep. p. 72-73) Walker also testified that she “was moving her hand away” as Mueller was attempting to handcuff her. (Id. p. 57) She explained, “I pulled my arms -- he caught me off guard. I was like what are you doing.” (Id. p. 75)

         Mueller testified,

she's continuing to get louder and point and get closer, [I made the] determination [] she should be put under arrest. . . . I stepped toward Ms. Walker and with my left hand reached out to grab around to her left hand which she turned away. . . . She pulled away again, as she continued her turn. As I had control of her left arm, Officer Saunders stepped up and we were able to control her.

(Mueller Dep. p. 16)

         Saunders' report states that “Ptlm. Muller [sic] placed her hands behind her back. Walker did attempt to pull away, however, I was able to place handcuffs on her without incident.” (Gillispie Cert. Ex. A)

         It is undisputed that after Walker was placed in handcuffs, she was escorted outside the house and into the back of a patrol car. (DSUF ¶ 17) Hitchens testified that Walker's “children were looking out the window and they were crying” as Walker was being put into the police car. (Hitchens Dep. p. 20-21)

         At this time Hitchens was speaking to her father, Dante Wilson, on her cell phone. Wilson testified that he asked to speak to “an officer” who told Wilson that Walker was being arrested “to teach her a lesson.” (Wilson Dep. p. 51)[6] Wilson and Hitchens agreed that Hitchens would stay with the children while Walker was taken to the station for processing. (Wilson Dep. p. 51; Hitchens Dep. p. 21-22)

         Then, the officers received another call for a burglary in progress and Saunders' lieutenant directed Saunders “to just issue [Walker a] Special Complaint and process her at the scene, ” rather than take her to the station. (Saunders Dep. p. 34; Mueller Dep. p. 24-25) The Special Complaint charged Walker with disorderly conduct in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C:3-2A(1). It is ...

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