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Capra v. Knapp

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

May 23, 2018

OFFICER JOHN KNAPP, et al., Defendants.


          WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.

         During his arrest, Leonard Capra (“Plaintiff”) claims police officers used excessive force and that the incident stemmed from their municipal employers' failure to train its officers. He now asserts violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Tort Claims Act against Hackensack Police Officer John Knapp (“Knapp”) and Detective Alexander Lopez-Arenas (“Lopez-Arenas”) and Bergen County Sheriff's Officer Vincent Surace (“Surace”) (collectively, the “Officers”); City of Hackensack (the “City”); County of Bergen (the “County, ” and together with the Officers and City, “Defendants”); and other fictitious individuals and entities. Defendants now move for summary judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, and 1367 and decides the matter without oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the reasons below, Defendants' motions are GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In a multi-agency investigation that included the Bergen County Sheriff's Office and Hackensack Police Department (“HPD”), Plaintiff sold drugs to an undercover officer. City SOF ¶¶ 8, 12, 19. Once arrested, Lopez-Arenas took custody and, with Knapp and Surace, drove Plaintiff to HPD headquarters for processing. Id. ¶¶ 21-22. On the way there, Plaintiff shouted vulgarities, threatening to kill the Officers. Decl. of John Visconi (“Visconi Decl.”), Ex. B, Lopez-Arenas Dep. 18:2-14, Jan. 26, 2017, ECF No. 61-2; Visconi Decl., Ex. E, Lopez-Arenas Investigation Report 0112, ECF No. 61-5. Yet, Plaintiff claims he said nothing to the Officers and cannot recall if they said anything to him. Id., Ex. D, Capra Dep. 58:17-60:1, Jan. 12, 2017, ECF No. 61-4. At HPD, the Officers took Plaintiff to a processing room (OD Room), so he could remove his jacket and any prohibited items on him before entering the holding cell. City SOF ¶ 24. As to what happened next, the OD Room's video camera recorded what took place when the parties entered and remained in the OD Room. Barnett Cert., Ex. E, ECF No. 66-5; Visconi Decl., Ex. O, ECF No. 61-15.

         The OD Room video shows once in the OD Room, Lopez-Arenas uncuffed Plaintiff. Ex. O, 22:42:02-33. Next, per HPD's “Pre-Incarceration Searches” policy, told Plaintiff more than once to remove his jacket and empty his pockets. City SOF ¶¶ 24, 25, 28, 30. Instead, Plaintiff just sat down. Capra Responsive SOF ¶ 32, ECF No. 66-1. So Lopez-Arenas decided to conduct the pre-incarceration search in the holding cell, which involved moving to another room. City SOF ¶ 33. He then approached and placed his hand on Plaintiff to move him, but Plaintiff pulled his arm away. City SOF ¶ 33-34. Noting Plaintiff's “agitated” state, Knapp and Surace also approached him. City SOF ¶ 38; Ex. E, at 0112; Ex. O, at 22:43:08.

         Standing next to Plaintiff, Lopez-Arenas and Knapp each grabbed his arms, while Surace positioned himself behind Knapp. Ex. O, at 22:43:12. Plaintiff then stood up with Lopez-Arenas and Knapp holding his arms, as Surace grabbed Plaintiff's waist and jacket. Id. at 22:43:13-15. The Officers and Plaintiff are then propelled forward into a desk towards the OD Room doorway, and then Knapp, Surace, and Plaintiff fell to the ground. Id. at 22:43:15-18. When Plaintiff fell, his face hit the floor. City SOF ¶ 43. While on the ground, Plaintiff claims someone kicked him in the face but does not identify who kicked him. Id. ¶ 47. Yet, Plaintiff asserts from the time he was thrown to the ground to seeing the bruise on his face, he may have “blacked out.” Capra Dep., Ex. D, 94:7-22.

         After Plaintiff hit the ground, Knapp heard a popping noise. City SOF ¶ 49. He then pulled Plaintiff's left arm from under his body, removed Plaintiff's jacket, and discovered a deformity that required medical attention. Id. ¶¶ 50-52. At the hospital, a surgeon diagnosed Plaintiff with a fractured left distal humerus with complete left radial nerve palsy. Id. ¶ 53; Barnett Cert., Ex. G, ECF No. 66-2. A medical triage report also noted small bruises on Plaintiff's forehead and lower lip. Barnett Cert., Ex. I.

         Defendants now move for summary judgment. First, the Officers argue their conduct was objectively reasonable considering Plaintiff's irrational behavior, failure to follow instructions, and demonstrated physical resistance. And even if they used excessive force, the Officers aver qualified immunity shields them from liability. City Summ. J. Br. 15- 23, ECF No. 63; Surace Summ. J. Br. 8-17, ECF No. 64-3. Next, the City and County both claim Plaintiff failed to show how a specific custom or municipal policy was the moving force behind the excessive force violation. City Summ. J. Br. at 6-10; Cty. Summ. J. Br. 11-14, ECF No. 65-7.

         Plaintiff opposes, arguing genuine issues of material fact exist as to the reasonableness of the Officers' use of force. Pl.'s Opp'n Br. 8-15, ECF No. 66; Pl.'s Surace Opp'n Br. 5-12, ECF No. 67. And as to the City and County, Plaintiff also asserts a failure to investigate use of force complaints as well as noncompliance with State-mandated use of force reporting and training requirements enabled the constitutional violation. Id. at 5-7, ECF No. 66; Pl.'s Cty. Opp'n Br. 5-6, ECF No. 68. In reply, Defendants essentially reiterate their original arguments. See City Reply Br. 1-10, ECF No. 69-5; Cty. Reply Br. 6-12, ECF No. 71.


         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986); Turner v. Schering-Plough Corp., 901 F.2d 335, 340 (3d Cir. 1990). A factual dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party and is material if it will affect the outcome of the trial under governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In its review, the Court considers all evidence and inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Andreoli v. Gates, 482 F.3d 641, 647 (3d Cir. 2007).


         Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a defendant, acting under color of law, may be sued for deprivation of constitutional or statutory rights. Miller v. Mitchell, 598 F.3d 139, 147 (3d Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). Although subject to suit for on-duty actions, officers may assert qualified immunity “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982) (citations and footnote omitted).

         To decide if qualified immunity applies, the Court will consider: (1) whether Plaintiff presents sufficient facts to show the Officers' conduct violated his constitutional right and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the OD Room incident. See Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2009). To find a “clearly established” right centers on “whether it would be clear to a ...

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