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Civil Rights Claims Against Officers Dismissed Based on Qualified Immunity

shutterstock_18277498-300x203.jpgCharles R Cohen

On July 13, 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously dismissed a plaintiff's civil rights claim against three Monmouth County Sheriff's officers based upon the qualified immunity doctrine. The case is Morillo v. Monmouth County Sheriff's Officers.

The plaintiff, who was arrested on a child support warrant, was also charged with unlawful possession of a loaded handgun, which he had concealed in his waistband. At the time of his arrest, he was smoking marijuana in a car parked in the driveway of his mother's home. That charge was later dismissed when it was determined that the gun was properly registered, and the criminal statute provided an exemption for firearms kept or carried at a person's residence.

The plaintiff then sued the officers under Federal law (42 U.S.C. ยง 1983) and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (N.J.S.A. 10:6-1 to -2), which make law enforcement officers who act on behalf of the State liable for injuries they cause if they deprive a person of his or her Constitutional or other legal rights. The plaintiff claimed his arrest was without probable cause, and therefore violated his rights under the Second and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution.

However, the qualified immunity doctrine shields law enforcement officers from personal liability where the officer acted reasonably. The New Jersey Supreme Court held that here, even if the officers were mistaken about probable cause, they could not be said to have acted unreasonably: "Viewed in their totality, the officers' involvement in the circumstances that led to the filing of the unlawful possession charge against plaintiff does not rise to the level required to meet the standard for stripping these officers of the protection of qualified immunity."

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