JOHNSON v. STITH et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge Madeline Cox Arleo on 9/18/17. (cm, )
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
DONTAE L. JOHNSON,
Civil Action No. 14-5032
CAPT. KEITH L. STITH, et al.,
ARLEO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendants Capt. Keith L. Stith’s (“Stith”)
and Det. Miguel Matos’ (“Matos”) (together, the “Officers” or “Defendants”) motions for
summary judgment. ECF Nos. 53-54. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants’ motions are
This case arises from Plaintiff Dontae L. Johnson’s (“Johnson” or “Plaintiff”) 2013
criminal trial for jury tampering, in which Plaintiff was ultimately acquitted. Now, Plaintiff asserts
malicious prosecution claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act
(“NJCRA”) against Defendants, two Hudson County officers involved in the investigation and
prosecution of his jury tampering case.
A. Quaheem Johnson’s Murder Trial
In April and May of 2011, Plaintiff’s nephew Quaheem Johnson (“Quaheem”) stood trial
for murder in Hudson County Superior Court before the Honorable Joseph V. Isabella, J.S.C. Stith
R.56 Stmt. ¶¶ 1-2, ECF No. 54-2.1 On April 28, 2011, after deliberations had commenced, juror
Tiffany Thorpe (“Thorpe”) sent Judge Isabella a note stating that she felt “very uncomfortable,”
due at least in part to the fact that someone in the defendant’s family “knows where [she] live[s].”
Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 8; see also id., Ex. A, 4/28/11 Quaheem Johnson Trial Transcript (“4/28/11 Tr.”)
3:1-9, ECF No. 54-5. Upon further questioning by Judge Isabella, Thorpe said that she was “a
little nervous,” “uncomfortable,” and “scared” for two reasons. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 9. First, Thorpe
said that she recognized a woman in the gallery on Quaheem’s side who looked at her throughout
the trial, and whom she believed lived around the corner from her. Id. ¶ 10, 61. Second, Thorpe
explained that when she went to McDonald’s on the previous day, some “guys from [Quaheem’s]
family” stood behind her in line and were “talking about the jury.” Id. ¶¶ 11, 57. For instance, the
men said “the Prosecutor doing all this stuff for the jury and it’s not even cute, dah, dah, dah . . .
.” Id. ¶ 58. The men never ordered anything at the restaurant. Id. Based on this testimony, Judge
Isabella remarked that there was “clearly juror intimidation,” and excused Thorpe from jury
service. Id. ¶¶ 12, 59.
Plaintiff argues that numerous documents and statements relied upon by Defendants cannot be
considered by the Court because they are inadmissible hearsay. Pl.’s Br. at 5-6. However, these
out-of-court statements are not hearsay because they are not offered for the truth of the matter
asserted. Rather, they are offered to show what information the Officers had in their possession at
the time of Plaintiff’s arrest and indictment, which is necessary to determine whether probable
cause existed. See Orsatti v. New Jersey State Police, 71 F.3d 480, 483 (3d Cir. 1995) (noting that
“probable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances within the arresting officer’s
knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense
has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested.”). Plaintiff’s argument is therefore
without merit. See Domenech v. City of Philadelphia, No. 06-1325, 2009 WL 1109316, at *1 n.3
(E.D. Pa. Apr. 23, 2009), aff’d, 373 F. App’x 254 (3d Cir. 2010) (holding that, in a malicious
prosecution case, out-of-court statements were not hearsay when they were offered to show what
the police knew, which was necessary to determine whether there was probable cause at the time
plaintiff was prosecuted); Smith v. Angelo, No. 14-1066, 2017 WL 2276985, at *1 n.2 (D. Del.
May 25, 2017) (same); Cairel v. Alderden, 821 F.3d 823, 831 (7th Cir. 2016) (same); see also
Torres v. City of Philadelphia, 673 F. App’x 233, 236 (3d Cir. 2016) (noting that “probable cause
may rest upon hearsay, provided there exists ‘a substantial basis for crediting the hearsay’”).
After dismissing Thorpe, Judge Isabella interviewed the remaining jurors to determine
whether they were still capable of rendering a fair verdict. 4/28/11 Tr. 12:24-41:7. One of the
jurors, Andre Heun (“Heun”), stated that Thorpe told him over the span of a few days that she
“was worried about the guys that were sitting in the back.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 85. Heun also said
that he was in the McDonald’s with Thorpe, and heard the men “talking very loud,” saying
“something about jurors.” Id. ¶ 13, 84; see also 4/28/11 Tr. 18:1-6. He further noted that “the
whole jury itself has actually noticed these guys,” and that they were “a little creepy looking.”
Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 85. He nevertheless said that he was not intimidated and could continue to serve
on the jury. Id. ¶ 86.
None of the other jurors indicated that they needed to be excused. See 4/28/11 Tr. 20:339:17. Judge Isabella replaced Thorpe with an alternate juror, and the jury deliberation continued.
4/28/11 Tr. 40:1-42:19. However, Heun suffered a heart attack the following day, and was excused
as a juror for that reason. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 15; see also id., Ex. S, 10/16/13 Trial Transcript
(“10/16/13 Tr.”) 78:12-16, ECF No. 54-23. Heun was replaced by the only remaining alternate
juror, Jaime Medina (“Medina”). Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 16.
On May 4, 2011, Medina wrote a note to Judge Isabella about his “family’s life being
threatened.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 18; see also id., Ex. B, 5/4/11 Tr. (“5/4/11 Tr.”) 3:5-9, ECF No.
54-6. Medina first explained that he was initially “nervous” to be a juror in the case because he
lives across the street from the courthouse. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 20; 5/4/11 Tr. 4:12-13. In addition,
Medina said that on the previous day, he walked home and was talking to his father in front of his
house when someone he suspected to be Quaheem’s “brother,” and whom he had noticed was
present in the courtroom “every day of the case,” walked by them with two of his friends. Stith
R.56 Stmt. ¶¶ 19-20. As the three men walked by, one of the two friends gave Medina an
“acknowledgement smile that he knows who [he is].” Id. ¶ 20. He explained that although the
men could have been walking to their homes in “the Projects,” it was “too close of a coincidence
these guys walked by my house,” and that the event would “affect [his] decision” because he could
“run into one of [Quaheem’s] friends or family members in the street going to the store or
something.” Id. ¶ 21; 5/4/11 Tr. 5:6-25. After excusing Medina, with no more alternate jurors
remaining, Judge Isabella declared a mistrial. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 22; 5/4/11 Tr. 7:2.
B. Jury Tampering Investigation
On May 5, 2011, after speaking with the assistant prosecutor who handled Quaheem’s trial
and learning that Judge Isabella had to declare a mistrial, Defendants Stith and Matos began
investigating the two incidents of alleged jury tampering—the “McDonald’s Incident” and the
“Medina Incident.” Id. ¶ 25. At the time, Stith was a Lieutenant in charge of the Gang Task Force
in the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. Id. ¶ 23. Matos was a Hudson County Department of
Corrections employee on loan to the Gang Task Force as a Detective. Id. ¶ 24; see also 10/16/13
On May 5, 2011, Stith and Matos interviewed Medina at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s
Office regarding the Medina Incident. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 26. On May 9, 2011, Matos prepared a
report memorializing the interview. Id. ¶ 96. According to the report, on April 28, 2011, Medina
asked a sheriff’s officer to escort him home because he “feared for his safety.” Id. ¶ 97. He told
Stith and Matos that he “felt uncomfortable throughout the trial because three (3) black males that
attended the trial kept giving jurors hard stares,” and that he “thinks that one (1) of the males is
related to the defendant, Quaheem Johnson, because Johnson and the individual look alike.” Id. ¶
98. He told the Officers that he asked to be excused from the trial on May 4, 2011. Id. ¶ 99. On
the prior day, Medina “was talking to his father across the street from his home,” when he
“whispered for his father to stop talking and that he . . . would tell his father why later.” Id., Ex.
D, 5/9/11 Investigation Report, ECF No. 54-8. Medina reported that “moments later three (3) men
that he felt intimidated by in the trial, walked pas[t] him . . . and his father,” and “one (1) of the
men turned to him and smiled with a sinister look.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 100. He further remarked
that he “felt scared to the point that he has not slept since the incident.” Id. Medina also allegedly
told the Officers that in the 15 years he has owned his home, he has never seen the three men in
his neighborhood, and “fears for his wife’s safety and the safety of his parents who live in the
house directly across the street from his residence.” Id. ¶ 101.
On May 6, 2011, Matos interviewed Heun at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office
regarding the McDonald’s Incident. Id. ¶ 27. Matos later prepared a report memorializing the
interview. Id. ¶ 63. According to the report, Heun said that during Quaheem’s trial, he “was
standing behind three young black men at the McDonald’s,” when he heard “one of the men sa[y]
very loudly, ‘That fucking judge and that fucking jury think this is a fucking game! This ain’t no
fucking game!’” Id., Ex. E, 5/9/11 Investigation Report of Interview with Heun, ECF No. 54-9.
Heun allegedly said that “the statements made him feel threatened.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 65. Matos
noted that Heun “strongly believes that the man who made the statement is the defendant’s brother
because the man looks so much like the defendant on trial.” Id. ¶ 66. Heun also told Matos that
“after the men were served, the men went into the dining room to the left of the front counter and
continued making the same intimidating statements over and over again.” Id. ¶ 67. He further
indicated that he “felt uncomfortable during the trial because the three men that he previously
mentioned were giving the jurors hard looks throughout the trial.” Id. ¶ 68.
On May 9, 2011, Stith interviewed Thorpe over the telephone regarding the McDonald’s
Incident, and memorialized the interview in a report. Id. ¶¶ 28, 51. According to the report, Thorpe
said that she “asked to be excused from the trial . . . based on an incident that took place on May
27, 20112 at the McDonald’s Restaurant” near the Hudson County courthouse, involving “the
defendant’s brother, Dontae Johnson and two unidentified black males.” Id. ¶ 52. Thorpe further
explained that “she and other jurors went to lunch at the McDonald’s Restaurant,” and that “while
the jurors were ordering their food, the defendant’s brother and two unidentified black males were
using profane language and making comments about the jurors, prosecutor and judge.” Id. ¶ 53.
Thorpe allegedly could not recall exactly what had been said in the McDonald’s. Id. ¶ 54. When
she had received her food, she “left the restaurant because she felt threatened,” and requested a
meeting with Judge Isabella during deliberations the following day. Id. At the end of the
interview, Thorpe also told Stith that “the defendant’s family lives around the corner from her
home.” Id. ¶ 55.
On May 16, 2011, Matos obtained soundless video surveillance footage of the McDonald’s
Incident. Id. ¶ 30.
That same day, Matos conducted a second interview with Heun, and prepared a report
memorializing the interview. Id. ¶ 69. Heun had “agreed to view the video and identify the
individuals that threaten[ed] the jurors” at McDonald’s. Id., Ex. G, 5/16/11 Investigation Report
of Heun Interview (“5/16/11 Investigation Report – Heun Interview”), ECF No. 54-11. Upon
viewing the video, Heun “immediately pointed out the man he called ‘the defendant’s brother’ and
two unidentified black males on the video.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 70. As the video played, Heun
explained that “as the jurors were ordering food, the ‘defendant’s brother’ and two black males
were in line in front of him,” when Plaintiff “and the two black males stated loudly that ‘the
It appears that Stith incorrectly indicated that the event occurred on May 27, 2011, as it actually
occurred on April 27, 2011. See Stith R.56 Stmt., Ex. F, 5/9/11 Investigation Report of Thorpe
Interview, ECF 54-10; Defs.’ Resp. R.56 Stmt. ¶ 86, ECF No. 64-1.
prosecutor and jurors think this is a fucking joke.’” Id. ¶ 71-72. Heun explained that “he and the
other jurors became very uncomfortable.” 5/16/11 Investigation Report – Heun Interview. He
further indicated that “after [Plaintiff] and the two black males purchased their food, they sat in
the same section of McDonald’s with a juror,” who “was very upset about the incident in the
McDonalds” when she returned to the jury room. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 73. Heun reportedly became
ill while viewing the video, and asked to continue the interview at a later time. Id. ¶ 74. The report
notes that subsequent to Heun’s identification, “the Gang Task Force identified ‘the defendant’s
brother’ as Dontae Johnson, the defendant’s nephew.” 5/16/11 Investigation Report – Heun
Also on May 16, 2011, Stith called a “reliable [c]onfidential [i]nformant that knows
Quaheem Johnson” to ask whether he knew if Quaheem had a brother. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 33. The
confidential informant told Stith that he was unaware if Quaheem has a brother, but said that he
has a nephew named Dontae Johnson that “looks exactly like him.” Id. ¶ 34. Stith then showed
the confidential informant a photograph of Plaintiff from the New Jersey Division of Motor
Vehicles, and the informant “positively identified the person in the photograph as Dontae
Johnson.” Id. ¶ 35. Stith also noted that “Dontae Johnson is the same person in the video that Det.
Matos received from McDonald’s.” Id., Ex. H, 5/16/11 Investigation Report re: Confidential
Informant (“5/16/11 Investigation Report-Confidential Informant”), ECF No. 54-12.
C. Plaintiff’s Jury Tampering Proceedings
On June 3, 2011, Matos applied for and obtained a Complaint-Warrant to arrest Plaintiff
for jury tampering in violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-8. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 37; Id., Ex. I,
Complaint-Warrant (“Complaint-Warrant”), ECF No. 54-13. The statute provides:
Any person who, directly or indirectly, corrupts, influences or
attempts to corrupt or influence a jury or juror to be more favorable
to the one side than to the other by promises, persuasions, entreaties,
threats, letters, money, entertainment or other sinister means; or any
person who employs any unfair or fraudulent practice, art or
contrivance to obtain a verdict, or attempts to instruct a jury or juror
beforehand at any place or time, or in any manner or way, except in
open court at the trial of the cause, by the strength of the evidence,
the arguments of the parties or their counsel, or the opinion or charge
of the court is guilty of a crime.
N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-8. In addition to a general description of Plaintiff’s alleged violation of
the statute, the warrant stated: “Probable Cause: Trial record of State v. Quaheem Johnson,” as
well as “interviewing of jurors and subsequent identification of the Defendant.” ComplaintWarrant at 1.
That same day, Plaintiff was arrested at his apartment, charged with jury tampering, and
subsequently detained on one million dollars cash bond. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 38; see also id., Ex. K,
6/3/11 Arrest Report, ECF No. 54-15. His bail was later reduced on December 16, 2011 to
$250,000 cash bond, and on March 19, 2012 to $75,000. Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶¶ 41, 43.
On December 6, 2011, Hudson County Assistant Prosecutor Michael D’Andrea presented
the jury tampering charge against Plaintiff to a grand jury.3 Id. ¶ 40. On December 20, 2011, the
grand jury returned a one-count indictment charging Plaintiff with first-degree jury tampering in
violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-8. Id. ¶ 42.
On October 15, 2013, Plaintiff’s jury tampering trial commenced before the Honorable
Frederick J. Theemling, Jr., J.S.C., and continued over the course of October 16, 2013 and October
17, 2013. Id. ¶ 44. During the trial, Matos, Heun, and Medina testified for the State. Id. ¶ 45. On
Matos conducted a second interview of Heun on October 7, 2011, in which Heun elaborated on
his identification of Plaintiff and further narrated the audio-less video. Stith R.56 Stmt ¶ 39.
Matos also prepared a report on this interview and that report was presented to the Grand Jury.
Id. ¶ 75. Since the Court must examine whether Matos and Stith had probable cause to arrest
Plaintiff as of June 3, 2011, when Plaintiff was arrested, the Court does not consider this
additional evidence on this Motion.
October 16, 2013, at the close of the State’s case, Plaintiff’s counsel made a motion to dismiss.
Id. ¶ 48. After hearing arguments regarding the strength of the evidence on both sides, Judge
Theemling denied Plaintiff’s motion. Id. ¶ 49. On October 17, 2013, the jury returned a verdict
of “[n]ot guilty,” and on October 23, 2013, Judge Theemling entered a Judgment of Acquittal. Id.
D. Procedural History
On July 7, 2014, Plaintiff brought an action against Defendants in New Jersey Superior
Court, Hudson County and on August 11, 2014, Defendant Matos removed this case to federal
court. ECF No. 1. On February 27, 2015, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint, asserting one
count of malicious prosecution under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act
(“NJCRA”), N.J.S.A. 10:6–1, et seq.4 ECF No. 18. On March 13, 2015, Defendant Stith filed a
Motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint. ECF No. 21.
On August 20, 2015, the Court issued an opinion dismissing Plaintiff’s claims against Stith
in his official capacity and all claims against Stith arising from his testimony before the grand jury
and at trial. ECF No. 32; Johnson v. Stith, No. 14-5032, 2015 WL 4997413, at *4 (D.N.J. Aug.
20, 2015). However, the Court denied the motion to dismiss the malicious prosecution claim
against Stith in his individual capacity. Johnson, 2015 WL 4997413, at *4-6.5 On February 7,
2017 and February 10, 2017, Defendants Matos and Stith filed the instant motions for summary
judgment. ECF Nos. 53, 54.
Because “the New Jersey Civil Rights Act is interpreted analogously to 42 U.S.C. § 1983,” they
will be addressed together. Coles v. Carlini, 162 F. Supp. 3d 380, 404 (D.N.J. 2015) (quotation
Although Defendant Matos did not move to dismiss, Matos and Stith are similarly situated, so
the Court will apply its prior holdings against Matos as well.
Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories,
admissions, and affidavits show that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Anderson v.
Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-248 (1986). “Summary judgment may be granted only if
there exists no genuine issue of material fact that would permit a reasonable jury to find for the
nonmoving party.” Miller v. Ind. Hosp., 843 F.2d 139, 143 (3d Cir. 1988). When the Court
considers a motion for summary judgment, “all facts and inferences are construed in the light most
favorable to the non-moving party.” Boyle v. Cty. of Allegheny Pennsylvania, 139 F.3d 386, 393
(3d Cir. 1998).
Plaintiff alleges that Defendants made several misrepresentations and false statements
during the investigation and grand jury proceedings, and that but for these fabrications, there would
not have been probable cause to initiate criminal proceedings against him. Defendants maintain
that even without the alleged fabrications, there was probable cause to arrest and seek an
indictment against Plaintiff.6 The Court agrees with Defendants.7
Defendants also argue that Plaintiff is collaterally estopped from contesting the issue of probable
cause at the time of his arrest because, during his trial, the trial court denied his motion to acquit
at the close of the State’s case. But the standard for granting that motion is not the same as the
standard for determining the existence of probable cause. The trial court based its decision on
[W]hether, viewing the State’s evidence in its entirety, be that evidence direct or
circumstantial, and giving the State the benefit of all its favorable testimony as well as
all of the favorable inferences which reasonably could be drawn therefrom, a
reasonable jury could find guilt of the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.
State v. Reyes, 50 N.J. 454, 458-59 (1967). The issue on this Motion is whether the Defendant
officers had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff at the time of the arrest, not based on evidence
produced at trial. See Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91 (1964). Given the different standards,
collateral estoppel does not bar Plaintiff’s claims.
Whether the Court analyzes this question in the context of qualified immunity or on the merits
of Plaintiff’s malicious prosecution claim, the same result is reached. If, after excising the
offending evidence, there was still probable cause to initiate criminal proceedings against Plaintiff,
To prevail on a malicious prosecution claim under Section 1983, a plaintiff must establish
that: “(1) the defendant initiated a criminal proceeding; (2) the criminal proceeding ended in [the
plaintiff’s] favor; (3) the defendant initiated the proceeding without probable cause; (4) the
defendant acted maliciously or for a purpose other than bringing the plaintiff to justice; and (5) the
plaintiff suffered deprivation of liberty consistent with the concept of seizure as a consequence of
a legal proceeding.” Halsey v. Pfeiffer, 750 F.3d 273, 296-97 (3d Cir. 2014) (quotation omitted).
Similarly, under New Jersey law, a plaintiff must show that the defendant “(1) instituted
proceedings (2) without probable cause and (3) with legal malice; and (4) the proceedings
terminated in favor of the plaintiff.” Trabal v. Wells Fargo Armored Serv. Corp., 269 F.3d 243,
248 (3d Cir. 2001).
The parties’ dispute centers on whether Defendants had probable cause to initiate criminal
proceedings against Plaintiff. “[P]robable cause to arrest exists when the facts and circumstances
within the arresting officer’s knowledge are sufficient in themselves to warrant a reasonable person
to believe that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested.” Goodwin
v. Conway, 836 F.3d 321, 327 (3d Cir. 2016) (quotation omitted). Probable cause “requires more
than mere suspicion; however it does not require that the officer have evidence sufficient to prove
guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Orsatti, 71 F.3d at 482–83. A “district court may conclude that
probable cause exists as a matter of law if the evidence, viewed most favorably to Plaintiff,
reasonably would not support a contrary factual finding.” Merkle v. Upper Dublin Sch. Dist., 211
F.3d 782, 788–89 (3d Cir. 2000) (quotation omitted).
his malicious prosecution claim fails on the merits and Defendants are entitled to qualified
immunity because Plaintiff cannot make out the deprivation of a constitutional right.
Here, Plaintiff was arrested pursuant to a warrant, which “generally establishes the
proceeding was initiated with probable cause,” but “‘does not, in itself, shelter an officer from
liability’” for malicious prosecution. Waters v. Cheltenham Twp., No. 16-2570, 2017 WL
3038125, at *3 (3d Cir. July 18, 2017) (quoting Wilson v. Russo, 212 F.3d 781, 786 (3d Cir.
2000)). If, as here, the plaintiff challenges the existence of probable cause, the Court “must
determine whether the officer ‘knowingly and deliberately, or with a reckless disregard for the
truth, made false statements or omissions that create a falsehood in applying for a warrant,’” and
if so, “whether ‘such statements or omissions are material, or necessary, to the finding of probable
cause.’” Id. (quoting Wilson, 212 F.3d at 787). In other words, the Court must assess “whether a
prudent officer would reasonably believe, based on the non-fabricated evidence, that the defendant
committed the crime.” Stolinski v. Pennypacker, 772 F. Supp. 2d 626, 644 (D.N.J. 2011).
Because Defendants first initiated a criminal proceeding by obtaining a Complaint-Warrant
for Plaintiff’s arrest on June 3, 2011,8 the Court must determine whether the non-fabricated
evidence possessed by Defendants at that time amounted to probable cause. Generally, the Third
Circuit requires courts to reconstruct the affidavit of probable cause by “‘excis[ing] the offending
inaccuracies and insert[ing] the facts recklessly omitted.’” Dempsey v. Bucknell University, 834
F.3d 457, 470 (3d Cir. 2016) (quoting Wilson, 212 F.3d at 789). However, where there never was
Although the parties do not address whether obtaining a Complaint-Warrant for an arrest
constitutes the initiation of criminal proceedings, the Court will treat it as such. See Restatement
(Second) of Torts § 654, Comments C & E (1977) (stating that “[c]riminal proceedings are usually
instituted by the issuance of some form of process, generally a warrant for arrest,” but may even
be initiated “without the issuance of any process, or indictment or information,” such as by “lawful
and valid arrest of the accused on a criminal charge”); Kelly v. Jones, 148 F. Supp. 3d 395, 400–
01 (E.D. Pa. 2015) (assuming for the sake of the motion that “bringing [the plaintiff] into custody
would suffice to meet the first element of a malicious prosecution claim”); Grendysa v. Evesham
Twp. Bd. of Educ., No. 02-1493, 2005 WL 2416983, at *10 (D.N.J. Sept. 27, 2005) (holding that
a detective initiated criminal proceedings against the plaintiff when he “completed an Affidavit of
Probable Cause” and “arrested [the defendant]”).
an affidavit of probable cause,9 the prudent course is to address what information the Defendant
officers had at the time of Plaintiff’s arrest and whether that information amounts to probable
The Complaint-Warrant identifies the evidence that supported a finding of probable cause:
(1) the “trial record of State v. Quaheem Johnson”; (2) “interviewing of jurors”; and (3)
“identification of the defendant.” Complaint-Warrant at 1. Plaintiff alleges that this evidence was
insufficient because Defendants made three false statements in the reports generated from their
interviews with jurors.
First, Plaintiff claims that Matos falsely reported that during a May 9, 2011 interview,
Medina told him that one of the individuals that walked past his house “turned to him and smiled
with a sinister look.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 100. Plaintiff notes that on other occasions, Medina said
that this individual only gave him an “acknowledgement smile that he knows who [Medina is],”
or a “how you doing kind of smile.” Id. ¶¶ 20, 104, 112. And in his deposition, Medina testified
that he never told anyone that he received a “sinister look.” Id., Ex. X, 5/5/16 Medina Dep. Tr.
Second, Plaintiff takes issue with the fact that Matos wrote in a May 9, 2011 report that
Heun told him that “after the men were served [at McDonald’s], the men went into the dining room
to the left of the front counter and continued making the same intimidating statements over and
over again.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 67. Plaintiff points to other occasions where Heun indicated that
By Text Order dated August 23, 2017, the Court ordered Defendants to “submit a copy of any
affidavit that was submitted to the state court Judge on June 3, 2011 in support of the ComplaintWarrant.” ECF No. 65. In response, Matos explained that no separate affidavit was submitted;
that, as set forth in the Complaint-Warrant, probable cause was established by the trial record,
interviews with jurors, and the identification of Plaintiff; and that these facts were orally
conveyed to Judge Isabella. ECF No. 71. Under New Jersey law, such a procedure is
permissible. See N.J. Ct. Rule 3:3-1.
he did not hear Plaintiff “continue talking loud [or] making other statements,” and that “after that
comment was made[,] nothing else was said . . . that [he] heard.” Id. ¶¶ 81, 93.
Third, Plaintiff alleges that Medina never told Matos that three “black males that attended
the trial kept giving jurors hard stares,” as Matos recorded in his May 6, 2011 investigation report
Id. ¶ 98. Medina later testified in his deposition that he never told anyone that Plaintiff gave him
“hard stares” throughout the trial. Id. ¶ 119.10
Even assuming that Defendants did fabricate these statements, the remaining nonfabricated evidence was nonetheless sufficient to give Defendants probable cause to initiate
criminal proceedings against Plaintiff for jury tampering. On two separate occasions, jurors in
Quaheem Johnson’s murder trial had interactions with Plaintiff and came away feeling intimidated.
This was demonstrated plainly by the trial court’s on-the-record questioning of the jurors, whose
testimony is not challenged here as having been fabricated.
First, Thorpe explained that at a McDonald’s near the courthouse, Plaintiff and two other
individuals were talking loudly about the jury, prosecutor, and judge in the presence of several
jurors. Id. ¶¶ 56-60. She said that the men never ordered anything at the restaurant. Id. ¶ 58.
Based on this testimony, Judge Isabella excused Thorpe from jury service. Id. ¶ 12. Judge Isabella
also remarked that there was “clearly jury intimidation.” Id. ¶ 59.
Thorpe’s disconcerting story was then corroborated by Heun. He explained to Judge
Isabella that he was in the McDonald’s with Thorpe, and heard the men “talking very loud,” saying
Plaintiff also makes repeated references to allegedly perjurious statements and material
omissions Stith made to the grand jury and during Plaintiff’s trial. See, e.g., Opp’n to Matos
Motion at 16-17, ECF No. 59; Pl.’s Resp. R.56 Stmt. ¶¶ 40, 42, ECF No. 58; Pl.’s R.56 Stmt. ¶¶
92, 94, 96-97, 102. However, the Court has already held that Stith is entitled to absolute immunity
for such testimony. See Johnson, 2015 WL 4997413, at *4. Such statements and omissions are
therefore irrelevant to the instant inquiry.
“something about jurors.” Id. ¶ 13, 84; see also 4/28/11 Tr. 18:1. Heun also told Judge Isabella
that Thorpe had told him over the span of a few days that she “was worried about the guys that
were sitting in the back.” Stith R.56 Stmt. ¶ 85. And he acknowledged that “the whole jury itself
has actually noticed these guys,” and that they were “a little creepy looking.” Id.
And in a separate incident a week later, after Thorpe had already been dismissed due at
least in part to alleged jury intimidation, Medina wrote a note to Judge Isabella about his “family’s
life being threatened.” Id. ¶ 18. Medina explained that three individuals, including one that he
believed to be Quaheem Johnson’s brother, walked right by his house and one of them gave him
an “acknowledgement smile that he knows who [he is].” Id. ¶ 20. He remarked that it was too
coincidental that these people, who he had seen present at the trial every day, would be walking
by his house, and that he was afraid for his family’s safety. Id. ¶ 21. Because he said that this
experience would affect his decision in the case, he was dismissed and Judge Isabella was forced
to declare a mistrial. Id. ¶ 22.
Importantly, the details elicited in the underlying criminal case were further corroborated
by Matos and Stith through interviews with all three dismissed jurors. In each of these interviews,
the jurors reiterated that they had been alarmed by Plaintiff and his associates’ actions, and
provided detailed accounts of the McDonald’s Incident and Medina Incident. See id. ¶¶ 51-55,
63-68, 97-101. In addition, Matos obtained video surveillance footage of the McDonald’s
Incident, which depicted the scene. Id. ¶ 30. He even had Heun narrate a portion of the events
dictated in the footage, during which Heun specifically identified Plaintiff as the individual that
had threatened the jurors at McDonald’s. Id. ¶¶ 78-82. And finally, to confirm that Plaintiff was
the individual that each of the jurors had recognized as Quaheem Johnson’s relative, Matos reached
out to a reliable confidential informant who confirmed that Plaintiff is Quaheem Johnson’s nephew
and “looks exactly like him.” Id. ¶ 34.
It may be true, as Plaintiff alleges, that Defendants somewhat embellished—or worse,
purposefully lied about—what the jurors said in their interviews. Nevertheless, the remaining nonfabricated evidence was more than sufficient to give them probable cause to believe that Plaintiff
had “directly or indirectly, corrupt[ed], influence[d] or attempt[ed] to corrupt or influence a jury
or juror to be more favorable to the one side than to the other.” N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-8.
Plaintiff also advances several additional arguments for why probable cause was lacking.
None of them is persuasive.
Plaintiff first argues that Matos obtained an arrest warrant for Plaintiff without identifying
him as the individual who committed the alleged acts. The evidence before the Court demonstrates
otherwise. At the underlying criminal trial, each of the three dismissed jurors explained where the
individuals involved in the McDonald’s Incident and Medina Incident sat in the courtroom, and
each remarked that one of the culprits looked like Quaheem Johnson and was likely his brother or
other relative. See id. ¶¶ 11, 19-20, 85, 103-05. During subsequent interviews with Stith and
Matos, all three of the dismissed jurors reiterated these observations. See id. ¶¶ 53-55, 66, 98.
And during his interview, Heun specifically identified Plaintiff as the one who made the statement
in McDonald’s from the surveillance video of the incident. Id. ¶ 70-71.
Moreover, after these identifications, Stith called a reliable confidential informant to
inquire as to whether Quaheem had a brother. The informant explained that Quaheem has a
nephew that “looks exactly like him.” Id. ¶ 34. The informant then positively identified a New
Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles photograph of Plaintiff as Dontae Johnson, Quaheem’s nephew.
Id. ¶ 35. In reports, Stith concluded that “Dontae Johnson is the same person in the video that Det.
Matos received from McDonald’s,” and that the Gang Task Force identified ‘the defendant’s
brother’ as Dontae Johnson, the defendant’s nephew.” 5/16/11 Investigation Report-Confidential
Informant; 5/16/11 Investigation Report – Heun Interview. In light of this evidence, Plaintiff’s
identification argument is unavailing.
Plaintiff also repeatedly cites to Defendants’ subjective beliefs about whether probable
cause would have existed in certain hypothetical situations. See, e.g., Pl.’s R.56 Stmt. ¶¶ 5, 36,
54, ECF No. 58-1. A probable cause determination focuses on the “information that the arresting
officer has at the time.” Gilles v. Davis, 427 F.3d 197, 206 (3d Cir. 2005). But “a probable cause
inquiry is entirely objective,” and thus an officer’s “view of the evidence is relevant only to the
extent it explains what facts were available to him” when he made the decision to initiate criminal
proceedings. Halsey, 750 F.3d at 299–300. Defendants’ subjective views of the evidence are
simply irrelevant as to whether a reasonable officer would have believed that, under the totality of
the circumstances, Plaintiff committed the crime of jury tampering.
Further, Plaintiff maintains that there was no probable cause because Defendants “had not
ascertained Plaintiff’s intent” at the time of his arrest. Opp’n to Stith Motion at 8, ECF No. 57.
Courts have noted that “because ‘the practical restraints on police in the field are great with
respect to ascertaining intent . . . , the latitude accorded to officers considering the probable cause
issue in the context of mens rea crimes must be correspondingly great.’” Zalaski v. City of
Hartford, 723 F.3d 382, 393 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Cox v. Hainey, 391 F.3d 25, 34 (1st Cir.
2004)). Indeed, an “officer considering the probable cause issue in the context of crime requiring
a mens rea on the part of the suspect will always be required to rely on circumstantial evidence
regarding the state of his or her mind,” and may ultimately have to “make a judgment call regarding
plaintiff’s state of mind.” Paff v. Kaltenbach, 204 F.3d 425, 437 (3d Cir. 2000). Under the totality
of the circumstances—Plaintiff was identified by three separate jurors as engaging in conduct that
could be viewed as intimidating; the judge in the underlying criminal case believed that jury
intimidation had occurred and declared a mistrial, in part, due to those concerns; there was video
surveillance footage that corroborated one of the incidents; and the events occurred in the midst of
the prosecution of Plaintiff’s close family member for murder—it was reasonable for Defendants
to conclude that Plaintiff had “directly or indirectly, corrupt[ed], influence[d] or attempt[ed] to
corrupt or influence a jury or juror to be more favorable to the one side than to the other,” in
violation of N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:29-8.
And finally, Plaintiff contends that Defendants failed to undertake further investigations to
uncover specific facts that may have negated probable cause. For example, Plaintiff states that
Matos “never ascertained whether the three men walking by Medina’s home were on their way to
the public housing area,” rather than to intimidate him. Pl.’s R.56 Stmt. ¶ 43. But an officer is
“not required to undertake an exhaustive investigation in order to validate the probable cause that,
in his mind, already existed.” Merkle, 211 F.3d at 790 n.8. Defendants conducted a diligent
investigation—consisting of interviews with each of the jurors, retrieval and review of the video
surveillance, and communication with an informant to obtain an identification of Defendant—and
reasonably believed that probable cause existed at the time of Plaintiff’s arrest. No further
investigation was required.11
As Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that criminal proceedings were initiated against him
without probable cause, his malicious prosecution claim must be dismissed.
The Court notes that even after Plaintiff was arrested, Defendants did not cease their
investigation, and continued interviewing witnesses to obtain additional evidence. See, e.g., Stith
R.56 Stmt. ¶¶ 75-82.
For the reasons set forth herein, Defendants’ motions for summary judgment are
GRANTED. An appropriate Order accompanies this Opinion.
Dated: September 18, 2017
/s Madeline Cox Arleo__________
Hon. Madeline Cox Arleo
United States District Judge
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