NJ Supreme Court Rules Police Officers Entitled to Qualified Immunity from Civil Rights Claims

In Morillo v. Monmouth County Sheriff Officers, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that government officials were entitled to qualified immunity for civil rights claims arising under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (NJCRA), N.J.S.A. 10:6-2 and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871, 42 U.S.C. 1983. Most importantly, especially in the false arrest context, the court circumscribed the analysis in terms very narrow and favorable to law enforcement officials. When analyzing whether qualified immunity shields officers accused of false arrest under the NJCRA, the single dispositive query is: whether the undisputed facts show that no reasonably competent police officer would have arrested the plaintiff.

The Facts

On the evening of December 15, 2010, Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers Alexander Torres and Thomas Ruocco sought to execute a child-support warrant on plaintiff Eric Morillo. Ruoco located Morillo and another person sitting in a parked car near the side driveway of the residence. The residence belonged to Morillo’s mother, though he claimed he stayed there from time to time. Morillo was in the passenger seat smoking marijuana. When Morillo stepped out of the vehicle to be searched, he advised Ruoco he had a loaded handgun buried in his waistband. The officers arrested Morillo on the child-support warrant.

On the way to the police station, Morillo advised the officers that he legally owned the handgun and had documents to support his claim. At the police station, the officers discussed whether Morillo should be charged with a weapons offense. Absent a valid exemption or a carry permit, New Jersey law prohibits a person from carrying firearms outside their home, place of business, or other land owned or possessed by him. Morillo was found in the driveway of the residence (which the officers assumed was his home), leading to the question of whether a driveway is part of the home. After discussing the matter with the prosecutor and obtaining his blessing, the officers charged Morillo with violating N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b)(1). Due to the physical location of the home, the matter was ultimately dismissed by the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office and re-filed in Middlesex County.

On March 30, 2011, after learning that Morillo had legally obtained the handgun, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charges. In his report, the prosecutor explained that the charge lacked merit because Morillo “was found on his own property with a handgun” and, thus, was exempt from prosecution based on N.J.S.A. 2C:39-6(e), which is an exception to N.J.S.A. 2C:39-5(b). Morillo spent almost one month in jail due to the weapons charge.

Morillo subsequently filed a civil rights complaint against Ruocco, Torres, and their supervisor, Sergeant Steven Cooper, alleging false arrest and imprisonment under Section 1983 and the NJCRA. Morillo claimed the officers lacked probable cause to arrest him. The trial court denied the officers’ motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. After agreeing to hear the matter on an interlocutory basis, the Appellate Division affirmed the denial, finding there were genuine issues of material fact. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed, holding that the officers were protected by qualified immunity. 

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s Decision

             The Legal Framework : Qualified Immunity

Citing its prior decision in Gormley v. Wood-El, 218 N.J. 72 (2014), the court reiterated that the NJCRA should be interpreted coextensively with its federal counterpart, Section 1983, when analyzing qualified immunity. Trial courts must conduct a two-step inquiry: 1) do the facts alleged, taken in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, “show that the challenged conduct violated a statutory or constitutional right,” and 2) was the right “clearly established” at the time of the incident. If the answer to either query is “no,” the government official is entitled to qualified immunity. The two-step inquiry may be decided in any order.

On the “clearly established” prong – which is where most qualified immunity defenses rise or fall – the court unreservedly acknowledged the “significant hurdle” it poses for plaintiffs in civil rights cases. Following the United States Supreme Court’s lead, the court held that “‘existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question’ confronted by the official ‘beyond debate.’” In other words, courts must review the applicable law and determine whether it would have placed a reasonable officer on notice that his actions were unlawful.

The court also offered specific guidance in false arrest cases, which should assist defense counsel in presenting the qualified immunity defense. False arrest cases generally revolve around whether probable cause existed to support the arrest or, even if it did not, whether a reasonable officer could have believed it existed. The court tipped the scale in favor of the defense, holding that if reasonable officers could disagree on whether probable cause exists, the doctrine of qualified immunity applies. Thus, the query for lower courts “depends on a single determination: whether the circumstances support a conclusion that no reasonably competent officer would have concluded that a warrant should issue. “

Finally, the court instructed trial courts to decide the issue of qualified immunity “well before trial,” including on summary judgment. The question of immunity is one for the court. Any genuine issues of historical fact (i.e., was the plaintiff resisting arrest, was the device, in fact, a handgun, etc.) should be decided by the jury using special interrogatories.

            The Court Grants Qualified Immunity To The Officers

After articulating and then applying the principles of qualified immunity to the case before it, the court entered judgment in favor of the officers. In examining the “clearly established” prong, the court reviewed New Jersey precedent to determine whether the driveway of a home not owned by the accused could fall within the statutory exemption provided by N.J.S.A. 2C:39-6. Finding the statute’s language ambiguous, and finding that New Jersey jurisprudence failed to place the legal issue “beyond debate,” the court reversed the lower courts’ decision and entered judgment in favor of the officers.

For more information about the court’s decision or the legal issues involved, we encourage you to contact a member of Scarinci Hollenbeck’s Government Law Group

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.