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Watson v. New Jersey Department of Treasury

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

December 29, 2017

JOHN WATSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, Defendant-Respondent.

          Argued November 6, 2017

         On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-0889-16.

          Christopher Markos argued the cause for appellant (Williams Cedar, LLC, attorneys; Christopher Markos, on the briefs).

          Benjamin H. Zieman, Deputy Attorney General, argued the cause for respondent (Christopher S. Porrino, Attorney General, attorney; Melissa H. Raksa, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel; Benjamin H. Zieman, on the brief).

          Before Judges Sabatino, Ostrer and Whipple.

          OPINION

          WHIPPLE, J.A.D.

         Plaintiff John Watson appeals from a July 22, 2016 order granting defendant New Jersey Department of the Treasury's (Treasury) motion to dismiss his complaint pursuant to the Mistaken Imprisonment Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 52:4C-1 to -7. We affirm because plaintiff's complaint was not filed within the two-year statute of limitations under the Act.

         We discern the following facts and procedural history from the record. On November 17, 1988, plaintiff was arrested in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after delivering cocaine to an undercover police officer. Six days later, on November 23, 1988, the New Jersey State Police (State Police) arrested plaintiff on the New Jersey Turnpike (Turnpike) for possession of cocaine and weapons. Plaintiff was tried on these charges before a jury and found guilty of possession of controlled dangerous substances and weapons. We affirmed this conviction. State v. Watson, No. A-1096-91 (App. Div. Feb. 15, 1994).

         Plaintiff asserts he was tried in absentia. The record[1]demonstrates plaintiff absented himself from the second day of trial, and we affirmed the trial judge's jury instruction on the flight charge. Ibid. Plaintiff served approximately five-and- a-half years for this conviction and was released in or around March 1996.

         In April 1999, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General (Attorney General) issued a report acknowledging the State Police's use of racial profiling on the Turnpike from 1988 to 1999. See State v. Herrerra, 211 N.J. 308, 324-28 (2012) (detailing the history behind the investigation into the State Police's use of racial profiling) (citing Att'y Gen. N.J., Interim Report of the State Police Review Team Reagding Allegations of Racial Profiling 3-4 (1999)). Pursuant to this report, numerous criminal defendants raised allegations of racial profiling and sought discovery relating to that issue. Id. at 326. Our Supreme Court entered an Administrative Determination and Order, on January 31, 2000, to coordinate management of those cases. Ibid. Beginning in 2000, the Attorney General agreed to vacate convictions and dismiss charges for cases it identified. Id. at 327-28. According to plaintiff, his New Jersey conviction was not vacated at that time because it "fell through the cracks."

         In November 2011, plaintiff was convicted in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania for another narcotics offense. Plaintiff was sentenced to thirty years, with five years of supervised release. Notably, the court found plaintiff's 1988 convictions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania enhanced his federal sentence because he qualified as a three-strike "career offender" under federal sentencing guidelines.

         On May 2, 2014, the New Jersey court entered a consent order vacating defendant's 1988 New Jersey conviction because it was subject to inclusion in the aforementioned State Police racial profiling consent order. In light of the vacated conviction, on August 13, 2015, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania resentenced plaintiff to sixty-three to seventy-eight months as he no longer qualified as a "career offender."

         Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging a violation of the Act in the Superior Court on April 27, 2016. The complaint was signed by counsel but not verified by plaintiff. Plaintiff sought damages for time spent incarcerated on the vacated 1988 New Jersey conviction as well as the enhanced time he served in Pennsylvania.

         The Treasury moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim, Rule 4:6-2(e), and plaintiff opposed the Treasury's motion and cross-moved ...


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