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Bradley v. Rodriguez

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

April 3, 2018

TERRENCE BRADLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
DETECTIVE ALEX RODRIGUEZ, Defendants.

          OPINION

          Susan D. Wigenton, United States District Judge.

         Presently before the Court is Defendant Alex Rodriguez's motion for summary judgment. (ECF No. 70). Plaintiff filed a response to the motion (ECF No. 79), to which Defendant has replied. (ECF No. 82). For the following reasons, Defendant's motion for summary judgment is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In his operative amended complaint, Plaintiff presents a single claim - that Defendant falsely implemented criminal charges against him, and thereby violated his Fourth Amendment rights by engaging in malicious prosecution resulting in liability pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (See ECF No. 9). Plaintiff's claims arise out of an event which occurred at 72 Hayes Street in Newark on May 8, 2011. (See Document 2 attached to ECF No. 79 at 51). According to Plaintiff, he arrived at the apartment building in question at approximately 9:45 p.m., to visit a friend who lived in the building. (Id. at 50-52). While climbing the stairwell to his friend's apartment, Plaintiff came across two men conversing on the stairs near the third floor - Al-Sharif Metz and Christopher Lucas. (Id. at 50). While Plaintiff had known Metz “since [he was] a kid, ” Plaintiff had apparently only recently met Lucas. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, he said hello to the two men and walked up some stairs to continue on his way when he heard a voice from behind him tell the three of them to show him their hands. (Id. at 53-54). According to Plaintiff, this voice came from below Plaintiff from an individual Plaintiff had not yet seen. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, he believed that the voice belonged to someone seeking to rob him, and he thus ran up the stairs to the fifth floor. (Id.). While running on the fifth floor, Plaintiff turned and saw “a man with a hoodie on with a gun out” and continued to run despite the man telling him to stop. (Id.).

         Plaintiff testified that, at the time, he was unaware that the man telling him to stop was Newark Police Officer and Defendant Alex Rodriguez. (Id.). According to Defendant and his three fellow officers who were with him that night - Officers Ramirez, Rosa, and Sheppard - the four police officers had arrived at 72 Hayes Street to check the building for drug dealing and other crimes shortly before. (See Document 4 attached to ECF No. 79 at 10-11). Upon their arrival, Defendant and Sheppard walked up one of the stairwells - the same one in which Plaintiff encountered Metz and Lucas - while Ramirez and Rosa remained in the courtyard with the intention to eventually enter the building through the other stairwell. (Id. at 11). According to Defendant, he and Sheppard came upon Plaintiff, Metz, and Lucas near the third floor. (Id. at 14). Defendant testified at his deposition that when he and Sheppard reached the third floor landing, they encountered Metz, who was a known gang member, with Lucas slightly higher up the stairs and Plaintiff further up the stairs still, close to the landing between the third and fourth floors. (Id. at 14-15). Both Lucas and Plaintiff apparently had their hands in their pockets. (Id. at 15). Although the officers could not tell what was being discussed, Defendant also testified the men were engaged in conversation when the officers arrived. (Id. at 14-15). Although Plaintiff testified that he never heard Defendant identify himself (Document No. 2 attached to ECF No. 79 at 53-55), Defendant stated that he identified himself as a police officer and then instructed the men to show him their hands. (Document No. 4 attached to ECF No. 79 at 15). Defendant testified that Plaintiff was facing him when he told them to show their hands, but Plaintiff did not show his hands despite repeated instructions to do so. (Id. at 16).

         Both Plaintiff and Defendant agree that Plaintiff then fled to the fifth floor. (Id. at 18-19). While Defendant was chasing Plaintiff on the fifth floor, both men testified at various times that Plaintiff either threw or dropped[1] an item that had been in his pocket over the railing and into the courtyard below. (Id. at 24; Document 2 attached to ECF No. 79 at 55-56). While Plaintiff claims that the object he threw or dropped over the railing was a Blackberry cellphone (Document 2 attached to ECF No. 79 at 55-56), the officers have testified in various hearings and during their depositions that the object was instead a handgun. (See, e.g., Document 4 attached to ECF No. 79 at 27-29). It is not clear from the record how certain Defendant was that what Plaintiff had thrown or dropped was a weapon at the time the object went over the railing - Defendant has testified at times that he thought or was pretty sure that it was a weapon, and at others that he was certain that it was. (See, e.g., Id. at 27; Document 3 attached to ECF No. 79 at 17, 31-32). Both of the officers who were in the courtyard, however, testified both at Plaintiff's trial and in later depositions that they saw the object as it was thrown, saw where it landed, and saw that it was a handgun when they used their flashlights upon it. (See Document 3 attached to ECF No. 79 at 185; Document 5 attached to ECF No. 79 at 72). While Officer Ramirez ran into the building to aid Defendant after the gun landed, Officer Rosa remained with the weapon until the crime scene unit arrived to photograph and take custody of the gun. (Document 5 attached to ECF No. 79 at 72-73).

         In any event, Defendant continued to chase Plaintiff until he began to descend the other staircase towards the third floor, at which point Plaintiff encountered Officer Ramirez, who had come to back up Defendant. (Document No. 4 attached to ECF No. 79 at 27). According to Plaintiff, Ramirez identified himself and ordered Plaintiff to get down on the ground. (Document 2 attached to ECF No. 79 at 55). Defendant and Ramirez, however, testified that Ramirez had to grab or tackle Plaintiff and take him to the ground to arrest him. (Document 4 attached to ECF No. 79 at 27; Document 3 attached to ECF No. 79 at 189). While he was being taken into custody, Plaintiff claims that Defendant told him he “had something for [him] for running, ” which Plaintiff took to be a threat. (Document 2 attached to ECF No. 79 at 57). Plaintiff was thereafter taken into custody, handcuffed, and taken down to the courtyard, where he was eventually questioned regarding drugs and a weapon. He denied having any knowledge about either, but Plaintiff did tell the officers that he was on parole and probation at the time. (Id.)

         Plaintiff testified that he remained in the courtyard area awaiting transport to the police station for about twenty to twenty five minutes. (Id.). Plaintiff further stated that he did not see anything on the ground in the courtyard, nor did he recall seeing any of the officers find a weapon while he was in the courtyard following his arrest, although he did see an officer “looking around.” (Id. at 58). Plaintiff qualified that statement, however, by stating that he was “exhausted, . . . couldn't breathe really that much, [and] had a leg injury” and was thus somewhat distracted and did not recall anyone finding a gun. (Id.). This is perhaps not surprising, however - as previously explained, the officers testified they had located the handgun prior to Plaintiff being arrested in the third floor stairwell. Although Plaintiff testified at his deposition[2] that he believed the weapon must have been “plant[ed]” or “stage[d]” because he claimed he did not have a weapon on his person and thus couldn't have been the source of the weapon, he also testified that he did not see anyone plant the weapon at the scene that night. (Document 2 attached to ECF No. 79 at 68).

         According to the officers, a crime scene unit officer later arrived on the scene, collected the handgun, and took it into police custody. The crime scene officer also took two pictures of the gun. (See Document 3 attached to ECF No. 70 at 79-81). In one of the pictures, the weapon appears to be a dark grey or black metallic colored gun with a brown wooden handle wrapped in grey duct tape. (Id. at 79). In the other, the main body of the gun appears to be a dirty metallic dark grey in color. (Id. at 81). The difference in color between the two photos appears to be a result of the weapon having been turned over to show the opposite side and brighter lighting when the second photo was taken. (Id. at 79-81). After being cleaned by ballistics officers, the weapon's finish was described by ballistics as being “stainless steel, ” and the weapon apparently appeared to be steel-grey in color, rather than the black or grey seen in the photograph, during trial. (See Document 5 attached to ECF No. 79 at 64; Document 4 attached to ECF no. 79 at 293). According to the officers, and visible in one of the two pictures, some writing - possibly a serial number - had been filed off of the slide of the gun, leading the officers to believe that the serial number had been obliterated. (Document 3 attached to ECF No. 70 at 79; see also Document 5 attached to ECF No. 79 at 60-62). However, Police ballistics officers were later able to identify a serial number on the bottom of the weapon after the duct tape was removed. (See, e.g., Document 4 attached to ECF no. 79 at 293).

         Following Plaintiff's arrest, he was ultimately charged and indicted for offenses including unlawful possession of a weapon and certain persons not to possess weapons. (See Id. at 81). Because the state chose to first try Petitioner on the certain persons offense, which required proof that Plaintiff had prior felony convictions, the state elected to drop the other charges as state procedural rules prevented the state from pursuing the other charges if they were not tried prior to the certain persons offense. (Id.). Following trial, Plaintiff was acquitted.

         At trial and at parole revocation hearings, [3] Defendant gave testimony which differed as to minor details regarding the events leading up to Plaintiff's arrest. As previously noted, Defendant testified to varying levels of certainty as to whether he knew the item dropped or thrown by Plaintiff was a weapon when Plaintiff discarded it. Defendant provided varying testimony as to the weapon itself - although he most frequently referred to the weapon as a dark or black colored handgun. On at least one instance, Defendant testified that the recovered weapon was a revolver, which he clarified was a mistake. (See, e.g., Id. at 151). There was also some conflicting testimony at trial as to whether Defendant, in rendering the weapon safe prior to it being taken into custody by crime scene officers, ejected the magazine inside of the weapon, or if the magazine was removed for the first time when ballistics removed the duct tape around the handle of the weapon. (See Document 6 attached to ECF No. 79 at 47). While the ballistics officer testified to having removed duct tape to extract the magazine from the weapon and check for the serial number on the butt of the gun, (see Document 4 attached to ECF no. 79 at 293), Officer Rosa testified that he saw Defendant remove the magazine from the weapon and unload the weapon at the scene to render it safe. (Document 6 attached to ECF No. 79 at 47). This particular inconsistency was also the subject of a jury question, indicating that the jury may have found this conflicting testimony relevant to their acquittal of Plaintiff. (Id. at 102-09).

         The final factual issue that arose at Plaintiff's trial, which has been emphasized by Plaintiff in this matter, is a chain of custody report which was apparently prepared by the crime scene and evidence officers who took the weapon from 72 Hayes Street but did not participate in Plaintiff's arrest. While Plaintiff was arrested on May 8, 2011, at approximately 9:45-10:00 p.m., the custody report for the gun lists the offense date as “04/08/11 - 21:00 Hrs, ” but lists the correct discovery site - 72 Hayes Street. (Document 6 attached to ECF No. 79 at 2). The report, however, lists the first event date for the weapon as occurring on May 9, 2011, when the weapon was taken to ballistics at 8:08 a.m. (Id.). The same date - May 9, 2011 - is listed on the ballistics report for when the weapon was delivered to the lab. (See Document 5 attached to ECF No. 79 at 64). It thus appears that the April date and 9:00 p.m. offense time may have been a clerical error. In any event, because Plaintiff did not testify at his criminal trial, Plaintiff's criminal trial counsel highlighted this report, and the inconsistencies in Defendant's testimony regarding the weapon, and between the ballistics officer and Officer Rosa to argue that the weapon had been fabricated by the police. (Document 6 attached to Document 79 at 75-80). While it is not clear whether the jury agreed with counsel, they did acquit Plaintiff after deliberations, leading to Plaintiff's complaint in this matter.

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. ...


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