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Simmons v. Roxbury Police Dep't

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

November 9, 2017

ROXBURY POLICE DEP'T et al., Defendants.


          JOHN MICHAEL VAZQUEZ United States District Judge

         This matter comes before the Court upon the filing of a prisoner civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”), and the New Jersey Tort Claims Act (“NJTCA”) by Plaintiff Timothy W. Simmons. (Compl., ECF No. 1) Plaintiff is a prisoner confined in Southern State Correctional Facility, in Delmont, New Jersey. (Id.) He brings this civil action seeking damages and injunctive relief for alleged constitutional violations that occurred during his 2015 arrest and subsequent prosecution. (Id.)

         I. DISCUSSION

         A. Sua Sponte Dismissal

         Under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B), district courts must review complaints filed by persons proceeding in forma pauperis in civil actions, and dismiss any claim that is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.[1] A pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.)

         “[A] court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint[.]” Id. Legal conclusions, together with threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, do not suffice to state a claim. Id. Thus, “a court considering a motion to dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.” Id. at 679. “While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Id. If a complaint can be remedied by an amendment, a district court may not dismiss the complaint with prejudice, but must permit the amendment. Grayson v. Mayview State Hospital, 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002).

         Courts must liberally construe pleadings that are filed pro se. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Thus, “a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to ‘less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). “Court personnel reviewing pro se pleadings are charged with the responsibility of deciphering why the submission was filed, what the litigant is seeking, and what claims she may be making.” See Higgs v. Atty. Gen. of the U.S., 655 F.3d 333, 339-40 (3d Cir. 2011) (quoting Jonathan D. Rosenbloom, Exploring Methods to Improve Management and Fairness in Pro Se Cases: A Study of the Pro Se Docket in the Southern District of New York, 30 Fordham Urb. L.J. 305, 308 (2002)). “The Court need not, however, credit a pro se plaintiff's ‘bald assertions' or ‘legal conclusions.'” D'Agostino v. CECOM RDEC, No. 10-4558, 2010 WL 3719623, at *1 (D.N.J. Sept. 10, 2010).

         B. The Complaint

         Plaintiff brings this civil action against the following persons: (1) employees of the Roxbury Police Department (Chief James Simonetti, Detective Matthew Holland, Sergeant Dean Adone, Detective Howell, Detective Manisa, Detective Xhudo, Lieutenant Marc Palanchi, Sergeant Kevin Carroll, Patrolman Jake Field, Patrolman Thomas Denicola, Patrolman Eric Weaver, Patrolman S. Weaver); (2) employees of the Morristown Police Department ([unnamed] Chief, Corporal Krauss); (3) employees of Morris County Sherriff's Department (Sheriff Edward Rochford, James Gannon, Commander Fluri, S.O. Sergeant Davidek, S.O. Cilurso, S.O. Perez, S.O. McMahon, and Sergeant Dean Adone); (4) employees of Denville Police Department ([unnamed] Chief, and Patrolman Weldon); (5) employees of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office (Bradford Seabury, T.F.O. Harrison Dillard, T.F.O. Sutphen, T.F.O. Boyko, Detective Tracey, Detective Spence Osaigbovo);[2] (6) a Confidential Informant;[3] (7) employees of the Office of the Public Defender: (Elizabeth A. Martin and Robert Gracia Montilus); and (8) a Confidential Informant/Cooperating Witness. (ECF No. 1 at 3-8.) Plaintiff also names four DEA Task Force Officers. (Id. at 8.) Each individual is sued in his/her official and individual capacity.[4] (Id. at 8.) Plaintiff also sues the following entities: Roxbury Township Police Department, Morris County Sheriff's Department, Denville Police Department, Morristown Police Department, Morris County Prosecutor's Office, and Office of the Public Defender. (ECF No. 1, caption.)

         Plaintiff states that the members of the DEA Task Force have been named “for Service of Process Only.” (ECF No. 1 at 8.) A summons and complaint is served only on the defendants.[5]The Court construes Plaintiff's statement that the DEA Task Force members are named “for service of process only, ” to mean that Plaintiff does not intend to proceed with claims against them. Moreover, Plaintiff does not make any plausible allegations of wrongdoing concerning the DEA Task Force members. Therefore, the Court dismisses them from the Complaint without prejudice.

         Plaintiff alleges the following facts[6] in support of his complaint. In June 2015, Plaintiff was unlawfully entrapped and seized by the defendants in violation of his civil rights. (ECF No. 1 at 9, ¶1.) The Police Defendants and Morris County Prosecutor's Office used a confidential informant (“CI”) to record phone conversations and make video recordings of Plaintiff. (ECF No. 1 at 9, ¶3.)[7] According to Plaintiff, the recordings were made without a warrant, without a reasonable articulable suspicion, without probable cause, and without prior judicial authorization. (Id.) The Defendants drew Plaintiff “into a scheme that caused [him] injury and harm also unlawfully entrapping the [him].” (Id.)

         In June 2015, the Police Defendants, prosecutors and CI, using a battering ram, broke into Plaintiff's hotel room at the Holiday Inn in Roxbury, New Jersey. (Id., ¶5.) They threw Plaintiff from the bed to the floor, kneed him in the back, and stepped on his face. (Id., ¶5.) Plaintiff had been sleeping and showed no resistance. (Id.) Defendants “continued to unlawfully coerce Plaintiff by showing an unreasonable amount of force by unlawfully pointing guns at [him].” (Id., ¶6.) They searched his room and his possessions without a warrant and did not find any illegal contraband. (Id.) Plaintiff alleges Bradford Seabury of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, along with several other Defendants, acted outside his traditional prosecutorial role in executing a warrantless search and unlawful seizure. (ECF No. 1 at 9-10, ¶4.)

         Defendants arrested Plaintiff without giving him Miranda warnings and “maliciously charged plaintiff with conspiracy and possession with the intent to distribute marijuana charges that were baseless and unfounded.” (ECF No. 1 at 11, ¶7.) Plaintiff alleges “the Honorable Thomas J. Critchley J.S.C. threw out the plea/conviction” on December 6, 2016. (Id.)

         Plaintiff alleges his public defenders, mishandled his criminal defense by:

allowing plaintiff to be prosecuted on evidence that is illegally tainted by “the fruit of the poisonous tree” and the product of an illegal search and that plaintiffs attorneys from the Public Defenders Office and other Pool attorneys failed to defend plaintiff and were grossly negligent by not investigating the states evidence, refused to hold bail hearings, refused to keep defendant informed at several junctions, failed to hold probable cause hearings, refused to hold suppression hearings to determine if plaintiff's rights were being violated, in which they actually were, vehemently denied plaintiff evidentiary hearings, denied plaintiff his complete discovery allowing the defendants to maliciously prosecute plaintiff.

(Id., ¶8.)

         Plaintiff seeks money damages and criminal prosecutions of the Defendants. (Compl., ECF No. 1 at 18.) Federal district courts, however, cannot initiate criminal prosecutions. U.S. v. Santtini, 963 F.2d 585, 595 (3d Cir. 1992) (“[a]s a general proposition, matters of law “enforcement” are within the power of the executive branch.”) (citing United States v. Russell, 411 U.S. 423, 435 (1973) (“execution of the federal laws under our Constitution is confided primarily to the Executive Branch of the Government”)). Thus, any claim for relief requesting criminal prosecutions is struck from the Complaint.

         C. Section 1983

         A plaintiff may have a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his constitutional rights. Section 1983 provides in relevant part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory ... subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

         Thus, to state a claim for relief under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege, first, the violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and, second, that the alleged deprivation was committed or caused by a person acting under color of state law. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988); Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1255-56 (3d Cir. 1994).

         D. NJCRA

         The NJCRA provides, in pertinent part:

[a]ny person who has been deprived of any substantive due process or equal protection rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or any substantive rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of this State, or whose exercise or enjoyment of those substantive rights, privileges or immunities has been interfered with or attempted to be interfered with, by threats, intimidation or coercion by a person acting under color of law, may bring a civil action for damages and for injunctive or other appropriate relief. The penalty provided in subsection e. of this section shall be applicable to a violation of this subsection.

N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c).

         In this district, courts have repeatedly interpreted the NJCRA as analogous to § 1983. See Trafton v. City of Woodbury, 799 F.Supp.2d 417, 443 (D.N.J. 2011) (collecting cases); see Hedges v. Musco, 204 F.3d 109, 121 n. 12 (3d Cir. 2000) (concluding that New Jersey's constitutional provision concerning unreasonable searches and seizures is interpreted analogously to the Fourth Amendment) (citing Desilets v. Clearview Reg'l Bd. of Educ., 627 A.2d 667, 673 ( N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 1993)). Therefore, the Court considers Plaintiff's § 1983 and NJCRA claims together.

         E. Entity Defendants

         Plaintiff named the following entities as defendants to his § 1983 and NJCRA claims, based on their involvement in his arrest and/or prosecution: Roxbury Township Police Department, Morris County Sheriff's Department, Denville Police Department, Morristown Police Department, Morris County Prosecutor's Office, and Office of the Public Defender. A city or county police department is not a proper party to a § 1983 action because police departments are “governmental sub-unit[s] that [are] not distinct from the municipality of which it is a part.” Mikhaeil v. Santos, 646 F. App'x 158, 163 (3d Cir. 2016) (per curiam). Plaintiff also raised claims against the Morris County Sheriff's SERT[8] and K-9 Teams. A specialized police unit is not a “person” that can be sued under § 1983. See Surine v. Edgcomb, 479 F. App'x 405, 408 (3d Cir. 2012) (per curiam) (“SERT itself is not a ‘person for purposes of section 1983 and thus may not be sued”) (citing Will v. Michigan Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71 (1989)).

         As a result, the Court construes the allegations against the police departments as allegations against the local government bodies under which they fall: Roxbury Township, Morris County, Township of Denville, and Town of Morristown. The Court also construes the claims against the SERT and the K-9 Team as claims against Morris County.

         A county prosecutor's office is a state agency, and is not a person amenable to suit under § 1983. Mikhaeil, 646 F. App'x at 161 (citing Estate of Lagano v. Bergen Cty. Prosecutor's Office, 769 F.3d 850, 854-55 (3d Cir. 2014) (holding that New Jersey county prosecutor's offices are considered state agencies for ยง 1983 purposes when fulfilling their law enforcement and investigative-as opposed to administrative-roles). The ...

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