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Coleman v. Camacho

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

March 26, 2018

RAMON CAMACHO, et al., Defendants.


          PETER G. SHERIDAN, U.S.D.J.

         Presently before the Court are Defendants' motions for summary judgment dismissing Plaintiff William Coleman's Amended Complaint. (ECF Nos. 131, 132). Plaintiff asserts a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (ECF No. 21), and Defendants assert that the doctrine of qualified immunity bars the suit. Initially, Plaintiff claimed that the officers utilized excessive force to arrest him and, as a result, several of his teeth were dislodged. Plaintiff could not identify which officer caused the injury to his teeth and, therefore, he listed the nine officers that were present at the scene. The nine officers sought dismissal based on the fact that Plaintiff could not identify any of the officers. Since no depositions of Defendants were taken during discovery, there was little or no evidence of what occurred at the arrest. As such, an evidentiary hearing on December 11 and 28, 2017 was undertaken, [1] and testimony from the Defendants police officers as well as from Plaintiff was heard. The police reports and the testimony are summarized below. Notably, in the Complaint Coleman alleges he lost several teeth; but at the evidentiary hearing, Coleman concedes that he lost four teeth in a subsequent incident in March 2015 - that incident is not at issue in this case. For the reasons discussed herein, Defendants' motions will be granted.


         In late 2009, Plaintiff William Coleman was under investigation by the Long Branch Police Department (LBPD) for selling narcotics or controlled dangerous substances (CDS). (ECF No. 133, "Statement of Material Facts" [SOMF] at ¶ 3). Officers Camacho, Roebuck, Chaparro, and Coleman participated in the investigation as part of the LBPD's Street Crimes Unit.[2] (ECF No. 133-2, "Camacho Report" at 1). Based on their investigation, Camacho secured a "No Knock" warrant to search the premises of 232 Edwards Ave Rear, Long Branch, New Jersey, and a warrant to perform a body search of Coleman. (SOMF at ¶ 4). On December 7, 2009, the LBPD assembled a team to execute the warrants, which included Officers Camacho, Roebuck, Chaparro, Coleman, Blamer, Grippaldi, Shamrock, Pilone, and Polk. (Id. at ¶ 5; Camacho Report at 1). Having been informed that Coleman was distributing CDS in an apartment located at 468 Second Avenue, Apt. 13., LBPD set up surveillance near that location. (Id. at ¶ 6). At approximately, 11:56 p.m., Coleman exited a vehicle, carrying a white bag that was later discovered to contain 2470 decks of heroin, $3, 920, two cell phones, and drug paraphernalia. (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 22).

         Here, the parties diverge as to what happened next. According to Defendants, Polk confronted Coleman, as he was approaching the front porch of Apartment 13, and shouted, "police warrant!" (Id. at ¶ 8). As Polk reached towards Coleman, he took a step back, clenched his fist, and punched Polk in the face; Coleman then tried to push Polk away, at which point Polk shouted, "You're under arrest, stop resisting!" (Id. at ¶¶ 9-10). Coleman then dropped the white bag and proceeded to punch Polk in the head. (Id. at ¶ 11). As Shamrock arrived to assist Polk, the three fell off the porch step and onto the concrete path; while on the ground, Coleman got on top of Polk and began choking him. (Id. at ¶¶ 12-13). After Polk was able to break free from Coleman's grip, Coleman rolled onto his stomach and tucked his hands underneath his body, in an attempt to avoid arrest. (Id. at ¶¶ 14-15). At this point, the officers feared that Coleman may be armed, since one of Coleman's associates was recently murdered, and he believed that he may have been attempting to retrieve a concealed weapon. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-18). As such, Coleman was ordered to show his hands, which he refused to do. (Id. at ¶ 20). "After multiple commands to stop resisting and to show the officers his hands, Polk sprayed [Plaintiff] in the facial area with a short burst of [pepper] spray." (ECF No. 131, "Roebuck's SOMF" at ¶ 20). Eventually, LBPD to handcuffed Coleman and transported him to Monmouth Medical Center, where he and Polk were treated for injuries sustained during the confrontation. (Id. at ¶¶ 21, 27).

         Coleman offers a different account of the arrest. At deposition, Coleman claimed that he was surprised by the police officers' presence; initially, he thought he was being robbed and "before [he] knew what was going on, " he "was put onto the ground and punched several times upon [his] face and head." (ECF No. 133-4, "Coleman Deposition" at 35:11-13). According to Coleman, he was unconscious for much of the attack and only regained consciousness once at the hospital. He claimed that he believed he was being robbed because he had money on him and he overheard one of the officers say "give it here." (Id. at 36:14-23). During the struggle, Coleman claimed he tried to defend himself by covering his face with his hands and, while trying to cover himself, "was beaten with all kinds of weapons from sticks to batons to gun handles." (Id. at 40:12-41:6, 17-18). However, at no point was he able to identify which officers allegedly attacked him, or the number of officers that were present during the incident-though he claimed there were more than ten. (Id. at 35:16-36:7). According to Coleman, it was not until he arrived at the county jail that he realized that the alleged "robbers" were police officers. (Id. at 39:14-24). As a result of the arrest, Coleman claimed in his deposition that he had lost two teeth, suffered a black and swollen eye, and bruises on his leg, shin and wrist. (Id. at 45:1-46:20).

         To resolve the issue of qualified immunity, an evidentiary hearing was held on December 11, 2017. Camacho testified first. He explained that, prior to executing the warrant, he had some concern with confronting Coleman, because Coleman "had prior history of resisting arrest and attempting to disarm a law enforcement officer." (IT. at 9:21-25). Camacho then described the alleged assault. Camacho was positioned across the street from the apartment and, as Coleman exited the vehicle, observed Polk and Shamrock identify themselves as police officers with a search warrant. (IT. 12:8-17). Both were wearing their police uniforms, which Camacho described as "police pants, uniform, patch, it was blue, patch on the right, patch on the left" and tactical vests that had "POLICE" lettered across the front. (IT. at 12:20-13:3). By the time Camacho crossed the street, Coleman had been brought to the ground, with his hands tucked under his waistband. (IT. 13:12-17). When asked what he did to control the Plaintiff, Camacho explained, "I was towards like the head, I had a knee on his ~ the mid-back of his shoulders ... I was by his head shouting commands to him, 'we are the police', 'we have a search warrant', 'you're under arrest." (1T 14:11-18). The whole struggle took about three minutes. (1T 14:25).

         Polk testified next. Like Camacho, Polk explained that, prior to executing the search warrants, the officers were briefed on Coleman's history, and that Coleman had been involved in multiple fights with officers in the past. (T at 23:24-24:7). On the night of the incident, both he and Shamrock were positioned in the shrubs beside the apartment, wearing their police uniforms and tactical vests. (1T 24:8-17). Polk then described how the altercation transpired:

I stepped out from where I was, said, "police", "search warrant", and immediately he struck me on the right [s]ide of my face with his left hand, and then it was on from there; me and him traded blows back and forth.
And then Sergeant Shamrock came - came from around the rear... and we tried to get control of him from there, but there were several strikes to my face as you can see from the photos, several strikes to his face, and then... we all went to the ground.
And the - this wasn't your average fight, this was a violent struggle; this wasn't he's just resisting or he's not -kind of not fighting, he was actively fighting. When we fell - he's large, so when we fell he fell partially on top of me, he started grabbing me by the neck, hit me more times; at that time I was able to break free and I could see where this was going, we still didn't have him anywhere close to under control. So I sprayed him, temporarily sprayed myself also.

(1T. 25:5-23). Polk explained that pepper spray became necessary since initial attempts to subdue Coleman were ineffective. (1T. 28:3-7). Once Coleman was placed in handcuffs, Polk was taken to the hospital for treatment of the injuries he sustained during the fight. (1T. 32:9-12). Photographs of his injuries were also admitted during his testimony, which depict abrasions to the right side of cheek and jawline, and swelling below his right eye. (1T 29:2-30:24; Exhibits 4-A- D). On cross-examination, Polk explained that he was the first to hit Coleman, in response to being punched; however, Polk denied ever hitting him once he was on the ground, though he did use pepper spray. (1T 33:5-13).

         Like Camacho and Polk, Shamrock testified that, on the night of the incident, he was wearing his police uniform and tactical vest. (1T 36:23-25). Shamrock then explained his familiarity with Coleman: five years earlier, Shamrock and other LBPD officers attempted to execute a warrant against Coleman, at which point Coleman proceeded to start fighting another officer, Defendant Pilone, and attempted to remove Pilone's gun from his holster. (1T 37:8-38:6). Turning to the night in question, Shamrock testified that he was Polk's cover, and followed behind him as he approached Coleman at the front porch of the apartment. (1T 41:21-23). He explained, "[a]s Officer Polk tried to stop [Coleman] from getting into the apartment, Coleman just squares up right away and throw[s] a left hook, and clipped [Polk] in the right side of the face." (IT. 41:21-23). At that point, Shamrock rushed to Polk's aid and tried to grab a hold of Coleman's left arm. (1T. 42:1 -7). According to Shamrock, Coleman shoved him aside and began "teeing off on Officer Polk, " "[j]ust both hands going back and forth, throwing punches." (IT. 42:13-18). At this point, Shamrock took out his baton and struck the back of Coleman's left leg five or six times, as a method of pain compliance. (IT. 42:25-43:5). Soon thereafter, Defendant Balmer joined in the melee, trying to grab Coleman; in doing so, the four fell off the porch and onto the ground. (IT. 43:7-12). Shamrock lost his baton during this scuffle.

         Once on the ground, however, Coleman again got a hold of Polk, this time choking him. (IT. at 43:13-18). Upon seeing this, Shamrock - now without his baton - began punching Plaintiff five to six times in the face, which ultimately helped Polk break free from Coleman's grip. (IT. at 44:11-20). At this point, Coleman spun onto his stomach, tucking his hands underneath his waistband. (IT. at 44:22-45:2). Like Camacho and Polk, Shamrock was concerned that Coleman was attempting to locate a concealed weapon; at which point he and Balmer got atop Coleman, placing their weight on his body, in an attempt to calm him. (IT. at 45:5-46:7). While still struggling to take control of Coleman, Shamrock was able to retrieve his baton and again struck the back of Coleman's leg another four times, in order to pull his hands out from underneath him. (IT. at 47:5-8). According to Shamrock, the whole incident took three minutes. (IT. at 47:12). On cross-examination, Shamrock denied ever hitting Coleman anywhere besides his legs with the baton and conceded that he was the only one to ...

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