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Hatcher v. City of Jersey City Police Department

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

February 27, 2019



          John Michael Vazquez, U.S.D.J.

         This matter comes before the Court on the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants City of Jersey City ("Jersey City"), the City of Jersey City Police Department ("JCPD") and Officer Eddie Fernandez. D.E. 52. Plaintiff Indigo Hatcher opposes the motion (D.E. 54-57), and Defendants filed a brief in reply (D.E. 62).[1]The Court reviewed all submissions made in support and opposition of the motion, and considered the motion without oral argument pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b) and L. Civ. R. 78.1(b). For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.


         A. Factual Background [2]

         From approximately 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on December 21, 2014, Defendant Eddie Fernandez, a patrol officer with the JCPD, performed plain clothes surveillance at Fulton Avenue in Jersey City. DSOMF ¶¶ 1, 4, 15, 30. Fernandez and other JCPD officers were conducting surveillance because of complaints that drugs were being sold in the area. Id. ¶¶ 17-19. When a JCPD officer performs surveillance, he "surveys the relevant area to see what is going on in the immediate area . . . look[ing] for illegal activity." Id. ¶ 21. If the officer observes unlawful conduct, he informs the "perimeter unit." Id. The perimeter unit, which also consists of JCPD officers, is located within two to three blocks from the surveillance area, and is directed to arrest actors that the surveillance unit observes performing illegal activity. Id. ¶¶ 23-24.

         On December 21, 2014, Officer Fernandez performed surveillance from the backseat of an unmarked car with tinted windows. Id. ¶ 29. The car was parked across from an empty lot on Fulton Avenue where Fernandez had concluded that, "[b]ased on past experience and recent complaints," people hid drugs. Id. ¶ 27. While performing surveillance, Officer Fernandez observed a female walking back and forth in front of the lot, which Officer Fernandez deemed "suspicious." Id. ¶ 33. Shortly after seeing the female, a van pulled up and the female approached the vehicle. Officer Fernandez then watched the driver exit the van and give the female a black bag in exchange for cash. Id. ¶ 34. The female took possession of the bag, ran into the empty lot, and placed the bag on the ground next to "a big box truck" parked in the lot. Id. ¶ 36. Officer Fernandez then saw the female leave the empty lot and speak with the van driver. Id. ¶ 37.

         After observing these events, Officer Fernandez instructed the perimeter unit to stop the van for further investigation. The perimeter unit eventually pulled the van over and arrested the driver. Id. ¶¶ 37-38. Presumably after the van left, Officer Fernandez watched the female "go to the black bag in the empty lot, take out a bag from inside the black bag and give it to another unknown male." Id. ¶ 39. While this was occurring, Officer Fernandez saw another female standing in the middle of Fulton Avenue "looking back and forth." Id. ¶ 40. "Based on Officer Fernandez's experience and training, he concluded that [the first female] had just sold a drug to the unknown male while [the second female] was looking out for police." Id. Officer Fernandez observed the first female allegedly sell drugs to a second unidentified man in the same manner. He then described the second male to the perimeter unit, who stopped the male and recovered drugs on his person. Id. ¶ 42. Eventually, the two females went into a house with the address of 45 Fulton Avenue, and Officer Fernandez ended his surveillance because it was getting dark. Id. ¶¶ 44, 54. Before leaving the scene, Officer Fernandez directed the perimeter unit to recover the black bag from the empty lot; the bag contained illegal drugs. Id. ¶¶ 45-46.

         Officer Fernandez then went to the South District Police Precinct and within an hour, requested assistance from non-party Detective Morris[3] in order to identify the two females that he saw during the surveillance. Id. ¶¶ 47-48. At the time, Officer Fernandez claims that he did not know the identity of either female. Id. ¶¶ 32-33, 47. The first woman was wearing a black knitted hat, black coat, blue jeans and sneakers. The second woman was wearing a heavy, black North Face coat. Id. ¶ 58.

         As a detective, Morris had access to the computer system used to look up Bureau of Criminal Investigation ("BO") data. Using the database, detectives can check BCI identification numbers, which are given to individuals who have been arrested. In addition, a detective can enter an address into the BCI database and retrieve photographs and identifying information of persons who were previously arrested at that address. Id. ¶¶ 49-52. With Detective Morris's assistance, Officer Fernandez concluded that Plaintiff Indigo Hatcher was the first female who he saw selling drugs, and Plaintiffs sister, Jasmine Hatcher, was the look out. Id. ¶ 40. How Officer Fernandez ascertained the identity of the two females that he observed earlier in the day, however, is disputed.

         Officer Fernandez testified that he told Morris the address of the house that he saw the women enter, 45 Fulton Avenue, and that Morris entered this address into the BCI database. After Morris entered the address into the database, the names Indigo and Jasmine Hatcher "popped up." Aboushi Cert. Ex. B, Deposition of Eddie Fernandez at ¶ 55:7-18 (June 30, 2016) (hereinafter "Fernandez Dep"). Morris pulled up the arrest reports for Indigo and Jasmine, which included photographs of both women. After seeing Indigo's photograph, Officer Fernandez identified her as the first female who was selling drugs, and after seeing Jasmine's photograph, Fernandez identified her as the lookout. Id. at T55:18-56:3.

         Morris, however, testified that Officer Fernandez "provided [him] with a substantial amount of information in order for [Morris] to figure out who that person [i.e. Indigo] was." Aboushi Cert. Ex. C, Deposition of Dejon Morris at ¶ 21:16-18 (June 30, 2016) (hereinafter "Morris Dep."). Although Morris did not recall precisely what information Officer Fernandez provided to him, Morris believed that Fernandez provided the address, the name Indigo Hatcher, and potentially her date of birth. Id. at T21:19-22; T23:9-10. Because Fernandez provided Morris with enough identifying information, Morris testified that he did not need to conduct an address search in the BCI database. Id. at T24:5-25:4. Morris also testified that Fernandez only provided him with information for one female, and accordingly, he only pulled one photograph from the database for Fernandez to review. Thus, Fernandez only identified one person. Id. at T26:12-21. After Morris inputted the information provided by Fernandez into the database, a picture came up. Id. at T23:l 1-19. When the photo appeared on Morris's computer screen, Fernandez said, "That's her." Id. at T28:l-7. Once Fernandez saw the photograph associated with Plaintiffs BCI report, "he was 100% sure" that Indigo Hatcher was the first female he saw while conducting surveillance earlier in the afternoon. DSOMF ¶ 56.

         At approximately 7:00 p.m. that same evening, Officer Fernandez called Jersey City Municipal Court Judge Rosen and provided Judge Rosen with information regarding his surveillance. Based on this information, Judge Rosen determined that there was probable cause, and signed four complaint-warrants for Plaintiffs arrest. DSOMF ¶¶ 59, 62; Adelman Cert. Ex. B. The complaint-warrants stated, among other things, that Plaintiff possessed illegal drugs with the intent to distribute and that she conspired with Jasmine to commit drug offenses. DSOMF ¶ 61, Adelman Cert. Ex. B. Then, on April 9, 2015, Officer Fernandez testified in front of a grand jury as to the events he saw on December 21, 2014. Because of Officer Fernandez's testimony, which included his determination that Plaintiff was the first female, an indictment was returned against Plaintiff on April 9, 2015. The indictment contained various allegations concerning the possession and distribution of illegal drugs on December 21, 2014. DSOMF ¶¶ 63-64.

         Plaintiff indicates that she was not even in Jersey City, much less on Fulton Avenue, when Fernandez was surveilling the area. While Fernandez was conducting surveillance in the afternoon on December 21, 2014, Plaintiff indicates that she working at a Shop-Rite in Hoboken, New Jersey. Plaintiffs time card from Shop-Rite shows that on December 21, she worked from 1:23 p.m. to 6:36 p.m. PSOMF ¶¶ 6-7. Despite Plaintiffs representation that she was at work when the surveillance occurred, "Fernandez claims that he is 100% sure that Indigo Hatcher was engaged in the narcotics activity he claims to have observed." Id. ¶ 26.

         In the summer of 2015, Plaintiff received a notice in the mail to appear in court in Jersey City. Plaintiff appeared and was informed by a judge that there were drug charges pending against her and that there was a warrant for her arrest. DSOMF ¶¶ 66-67; PSOMF ¶ 34. Plaintiff was arrested and bail was set at $10, 000. PSOMF ¶ 36. Plaintiff was placed in a holding cell but was released the same day when she posted bail. DSOMF ¶¶ 69-71.

         On August 10, 2015, the charges against Plaintiff were dismissed because the State determined that Officer Fernandez's identification of Plaintiff was incorrect. Id. ¶ 72; PSOMF ¶ 39. In moving to dismiss the Indictment, the Assistant Prosecutor explained that "[a]s it turns out your Honor, the police did not observe Indigo Hatcher making hand[-]to[-]hand transactions, it was another female who entered the home at 45 Fulton Street." PSOMF ¶ 39.

         B. ...

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