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Greenfield v. Trenton Police Department

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

October 31, 2018




         This matter comes before the Court on a Motion [ECF No. 18] by non-party movant, the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office (“MCPO”) to quash Plaintiff Talaya Greenfield's (“Plaintiff”) subpoena for the production of materials in connection with a four-year-long criminal investigation. The Court conducted oral argument on the Motion on April 19, 2018. For the reasons set forth below, the MCPO's Motion to quash is denied.


         Plaintiff is the mother of Jamer J. Greenfield and serves as the administrator of his Estate, bringing this action against the City of Trenton (“Trenton” or the “City”) and the City's Police Department (“TPD”) (cumulatively, “Defendants”) for allegedly violating his rights under the United States and New Jersey State Constitutions. Complaint (“Compl.”), ¶¶ 7-9. The Complaint originally named Mercer County (the “County”) and the MCPO as defendants, but the District Court entered an Order dismissing those entities from this action on June 6, 2017. ECF No. 15.

         The allegations, as pled in the Complaint, stem from an incident which occurred in the early morning hours of July 19, 2014. Compl., ¶ 18. Specifically, Plaintiff's son was the victim of multiple gunshot wounds, at or near the vicinity of an “after-hours club” located on Rosemont Avenue in Trenton. Compl., ¶¶ 17-18, 21. Moreover, the responding TPD officers who subsequently arrived at the crime scene allegedly failed to provide Mr. Greenfield with the required “proper and immediate medical attention”; instead, he was placed in handcuffs, which “inexplicabl[e]” “acts and/or omissions” possibly contributed to his death. Compl., ¶¶ 22-23.

         Although the previously described events prompted the underlying criminal investigation, Defendants have allegedly failed to provide Plaintiff with any information about the death of her son. Compl., ¶¶ 26, 30. Similarly, the MCPO only met with Plaintiff on one occasion which she describes as “meaningless, ” without ever providing “an explanation as to what happened on July 19, 2014.” Compl., ¶¶ 30-31. According to Plaintiff, these circumstances demonstrate the absence of any “serious steps” and the failure to “actually investigate” Mr. Greenfield's murder, whose death occurred over two years before the instant Complaint was filed, and over four years from the date of this Opinion. Compl., ¶ 24.

         The alleged manner in which the TPD officers treated Mr. Greenfield and the ensuing murder investigation prompted Plaintiff to file the instant five-count Complaint, wherein she includes claims for wrongful death and survivorship. Compl., ¶¶ 40-48. Plaintiff also alleges various violations of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the New Jersey State Constitution, the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. Compl., ¶¶ 49-72.

         In support, Plaintiff alleges that the responding officers subjected her son to an unreasonable search and used excessive force by placing him in handcuffs, constituting a deliberate indifference toward his medical needs. Compl., ¶¶ 49-59. Moreover, Plaintiff contends that the municipal entities have denied her access to the “services, facilitates, and benefits of local law enforcement agencies, ” and that, on a larger scale, a “pattern appears to exist wherein murder investigations are delayed, not thoroughly pursued, and even ignored, when the victims are African American males” in Trenton. Compl., ¶¶ 62, 68.

         Now, the MCPO moves to quash Plaintiff's subpoena which seeks to compel the production of certain materials in connection with its investigation of the murder of Mr. Greenfield. Specifically, the MCPO argues that the subpoena is improper and need not be complied with, because the requested information is privileged, given that it pertains to an ongoing criminal investigation. The City originally posited that the investigative file should be produced subject to a strict protective order; however, it subsequently retracted this position. Plaintiff opposes the Motion.

         II. ANALYSIS


         Discovery in federal litigation is governed by the broad provisions of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(b)(1), which specifically provides that a party is entitled to obtain the following information:

[A]ny nonprivileged matter that is relevant to any party's claim or defense and proportional to the needs of the case, considering the importance of the issues at stake in the action, the amount in controversy, the parties' relative access to relevant information, the parties' resources, the importance of the discovery in resolving the issues, and whether the burden or expense of the proposed discovery outweighs its likely benefit. Information within this scope of discovery need not be admissible in evidence to be discoverable.

Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(1). A Rule 45 subpoena served in conjunction with discovery is required to fall within the scope set forth by Rule 26. Schmulovich v. 1161 Rt. 9 LLC, No. 07-597, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59705, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug. 13, 2007); Caver v. City of Trenton, 192 F.R.D. 154, 159 (D.N.J. 2000) (citing Oppenheimer Fund, Inc. v. Sanders, 437 U.S. 340, 351 (1978)). In that connection, a District Court must quash a subpoena in four situations, one of which includes “(A) [o]n timely motion, the court for the district where compliance is required must quash or modify a subpoena that . . . (iii) requires disclosure of privileged or other protected matter, if no exception or waiver applies . . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 45(d)(3)(A)(iii). Before the Court may grant a request for such relief, however, the moving party must “demonstrate that a privilege exists and that the subpoena would disclose such information.” Malibu Media, LLC v. Doe, No. 12-2077, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105768, at *14 (E.D. Pa. July 30, 2012) (citation omitted).


         The instant dispute was fully briefed by the parties, after which the Court conducted oral argument on April 19, 2018. However, because neither the City nor the MCPO had actually reviewed the investigation file prior to the hearing, [1] the MCPO was ordered to submit a Certification for the Court to review in camera. That Certification was required to specifically describe the status of the open and active underlying criminal investigation, the materials within the disputed file, and the federal privileges which allegedly supported withholding its contents from Plaintiff.

         On May 11, 2018, the MCPO provided a Certification to the Court which was signed by James M. Scott, an Assistant Prosecutor for the MCPO. The Certification includes three sperate sections: (1) general background information on homicide investigations; (2) pertinent details about the underlying investigation; and (3) a privilege log. Furthermore, the privilege log specifies each document in the disputed file and maintains that the majority of them are protected by executive privilege.

         As the Third Circuit has held, “[w]hen a request for relevant documents or information is made, a claim of privilege should be interposed judiciously and not casually.” O' Neill, 619 F.2d at 225. For this reason, “broadside invocation[s] of privilege, which fail[] to designate with particularity the specific documents or file to which the claim of privilege applie[s]” are insufficient to properly withhold the production of relevant information. Id. Rather, the manner in which a party invokes a privilege claim must satisfy the following requirements, as previously set forth by the Supreme Court: “[t]here must be a formal claim of privilege, lodged by the head of the department which has control over the matter, after actual personal consideration by that officer.” Id. at 226 (quoting United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1, 7-8, (1953)). There must also be “‘a specific designation and description of the documents claimed to be privileged, '” in addition to the representation of “‘precise and certain reasons for preserving' the confidentiality” of the disputed materials. Id. (quoting Smith v. Federal Trade Com., 403 F.Supp. 1000, 1016 (D. Del. 1975)).

         Significantly, even properly asserted claims of privilege are not absolute-to the contrary, they must be demonstrated on a case-by-case basis. In this regard, the Third Circuit has held that “the party who seeks the information must show the need for it so that the [C]ourt can ‘balance on one hand the policies which give rise to the privilege and their applicability to the facts at hand against the need for the evidence sought to be obtained in the case at hand.'” Id. at 227 (citing Riley v. City of Chester, 612 F.2d 708, 716 (3d Cir. 1979)); Schaeffer v. Tracey, No. 15-8836, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 15708, at *10 (D.N.J. Feb. 2, 2017) (“In cases invoking the privilege, the court is required to balance the public interest in having the information remain secret against the litigants' need to obtain ...

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