In a recent and unanimous decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court reaffirmed that law enforcement officers are entitled to qualified immunity from claims of civil rights violations arising under federal and state law. In Morillo v. Monmouth County Sheriff’s Office, et al., issued on July 13, the Supreme Court dismissed allegations against sheriff’s officers that they violated plaintiff’s civil rights under Section 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act. In doing so, the Supreme Court reversed an Appellate Division decision which did not extend the qualified immunity defense to the officers.
The facts are as follows: Two sheriff’s officers went to execute a child support warrant on plaintiff. When they arrived at the address on the warrant, the officers discovered plaintiff sitting in the passenger seat of an idling car parked near the driveway and smoking what appeared to be marijuana. They later learned that the address was the home of plaintiff’s mother. When one of the officers asked plaintiff if he had any more drugs, the plaintiff told him that he had a loaded weapon tucked in his waistband. The officers seized the weapon and arrested plaintiff on the child support warrant. While riding to headquarters, plaintiff told the officers that the gun was registered to him, and that he was carrying the gun because he feared retaliation from gangs. The officers did not ask plaintiff for paperwork supporting the gun registration. At headquarters, the officers told their supervisor that plaintiff claimed to have such paperwork. The supervisor called the prosecutor’s office to seek advice on whether plaintiff should be charged with a weapons offense. The assistant prosecutor instructed the supervisor to charge him with a second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun offense. The weapons charge was later dropped after the New Jersey State Police confirmed that plaintiff’s handgun was properly registered.
Plaintiff filed a complaint against the officers alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. §1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act. He alleged that the officers violated his constitutional rights by wrongfully charging him with an unlawful possession of a weapon. In motions before the court, the officers asserted the defense of qualified immunity and sought dismissal of the lawsuit. A qualified immunity defense provides that the lawsuit should be dismissed without trial or discovery because the officers acted in good faith and did not have a reason to believe their conduct may be violative of a plaintiff’s rights. The trial court denied the officers’ motion, concluding that they had no basis to charge plaintiff with unlawful possession because the gun he carried was lawfully registered to him and he was at his residence when he was found carrying the weapon. The decision was appealed to the Appellate Division which affirmed the trial court’s judgment.
The Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Division decision in a very strong opinion affirming the officers’ entitlement to the qualified immunity defense under the circumstances of this case. The court emphasized that the qualified immunity defense shields officials performing discretionary functions from liability for civil damages where their conduct does not violate “clearly established” statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. This defense allows officers “some breathing room to make reasonable, but mistaken, judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” The court further noted that the qualified immunity doctrine is applied in New Jersey to civil rights claims brought against law enforcement officers who arrest or charge an individual based upon probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred.
In applying this standard to the facts and circumstances in the case, the court had no trouble in concluding that the officers were entitled to assert the qualified immunity defense. The court concluded that the officers acted with restraint and prudence in the face of a confusing situation. They were confronted with an individual smoking marijuana who was carrying a loaded weapon concealed in his waistband, sitting in an idling car outside the home listed on the warrant. Moreover, the court had no difficulty in concluding that a reasonable officer would have believed that probable cause for arrest existed under these circumstances. Accordingly, the court applied the doctrine of qualified immunity and dismissed the charges against the officers.
The court’s unanimous decision leaves no doubt that civil lawsuits against law enforcement officers should be dismissed promptly and before lengthy discovery occurs, based upon the doctrine of qualified immunity in appropriate circumstances. The court emphasized that officers “should not have to fear facing a ruinous civil lawsuit and substantial financial loss when acting reasonably in difficult circumstances and uncertain legal terrain.” It is a doctrine, according to the court, which protects all officers but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. While the New Jersey Supreme Court has recently issued some unfortunate decisions on issues of great significance to the NJ State PBA and its members, this unanimous decision sends a very strong signal that, at least in this area, the courts are on the side of law enforcement and should not dismiss the qualified immunity defense lightly. It will benefit law enforcement officers to not have to take the time, expense and uncertainty of defending against civil claims simply for doing their jobs competently and professionally.