T.F.R. et al v. MORRIS COUNTY et al
OPINION. Signed by Judge William J. Martini on 1/24/17. (gh, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
T.F.R., a minor, Melissa L Rodriguez
Mandry, individually and as representative
of Minor T.F.R., Jose W. Rodriguez
Mandry, individually and as representative
of Minor T.F.R.,
Civ. No. 2:16-5407
Morris County Prosecutor’s Office et al.,
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.:
Plaintiffs Melissa L. Rodriguez and Jose W. Rodriguez bring this § 1983 action
individually and as representatives for Plaintiff T.F.R, a minor. The Complaint alleges
twelve1 federal and state claims against Defendants Morris County Prosecutor’s Office
(“MCPO”), Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, Assistant Prosecutor Samantha DeNegri, and
Investigator Keisha Higgs. Defendant MCPO moves under 12(b)(1) to dismiss pursuant
to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, and Defendants Knapp, DeNegri and Higgs
move under 12(b)(6) to dismiss on the basis of absolute and qualified immunity. For the
reasons below, Defendants’ motion to dismiss is GRANTED and Plaintiffs’ claims are
DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE as to these Defendants.
A. Investigation and Arrest of T.F.R. for Robbery
The following facts are drawn from the Plaintiffs’ complaint. ECF No. 1. On
November 14, 2015, a gun-wielding individual stole a $1,200 bong and $60 lighter from
Serenity Smoke Shop in Roxbury Township, Morris County, New Jersey. Complaint
(“Compl.”) § 13. Thanh Nguyef, owner of an adjacent store, was five feet away from the
An additional claim for negligent misrepresentation against a Defendant Nguyef is not at issue
in this motion. Complaint §§ 192-96.
perpetrator and identified him as Plaintiff T.F.R, a nearby resident. Id. §§ 19-20.
Surveillance video from inside the smoke shop depicted an individual “wearing a dark
grey hooded sweatshirt, black bandana over the face, gloves (possibly latex), black jeans,
and black shoes with white trim and off-white soles.” Id. § 34. Based on the tape, the
detective estimated the individual’s height was roughly 5’8” or 5’9,” although the shop’s
cashier estimated between 5’11” and 6’2.” Id. § 37.
On November 17, 2015, Assistant Prosecutor DeNegri advised Roxbury police
that evidence was sufficient to apply for a search warrant for T.F.R.’s home, which was
obtained and executed the following day. Id. § 43. The search turned up several air
pistols, black shoes with white trim/soles, a grey hooded sweatshirt, latex gloves in offwhite/yellow, and T.F.R.’s cell phone. Id. § 46. The same day, Detective Niemynski
observed T.F.R at his school wearing black jeans and “white sneakers with off-white
soles and white trim.” Id. § 47.
Plaintiff surrendered to the Roxbury police on November 20, 2015, and was
charged on the same day with robbery and three related offenses. Id. § 49. He was
detained at a juvenile correctional facility for several weeks. Following a December 14,
2015 probable cause hearing, T.F.R. was placed on house arrest. §§ 51-54.2 His charges
were ultimately dropped on May 12, 2016. Id. § 62.
B. The Instant Action
Count I of the Complaint alleges unlawful seizure and “prolonged detention” in
violation of the Fourth Amendment. Counts II and III allege due process violations for
disregarding exculpatory evidence, failing to investigate alternative suspects and
depriving T.F.R. of his liberty through imposition of house arrest. Count VII alleges
conspiracy to deprive T.F.R. of his constitutional rights. The remaining nine claims arise
under state law.
According to the Complaint, police and prosecutors ignored exculpatory evidence
produced by T.F.R.’s family after T.F.R. was charged. Several family members provided
alibis for Plaintiff around the time of the robbery. Id. §§ 70, 72-73. Plaintiff’s mother,
Melissa L. Rodriguez, alerted police of an alternative suspect, Darrien Johnson. Mrs.
Rodriguez asserted that Johnson admitted to an unspecified third party that he had
committed the robbery, while Johnson’s “Facebook profile indicated he used marijuana.”
On March 1, 2016, Judge Huebner ordered that T.F.R. be permitted to return to school. Compl.
Defendants MCPO, Detective Keisha Higgs, Assistant Prosecutor Samantha
DeNegri and Prosecutor Fredric Knapp now move pursuant to 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) to
dismiss all claims against them.3
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint,
in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Hedges v.
United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In deciding a motion to dismiss under
Rule 12(b)(6), a court must take all allegations in the complaint as true and view them in
the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. v.
Mirage Resorts Inc., 140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998) (citing Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S.
490, 501 (1975)).
Plaintiffs’ opposition papers concede that MCPO, as an arm of the state, is
immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. See Regents of Univ. of California v.
Doe, 519 U.S. 425, 429 (1997); Fitchik v. N.J. Transit Rail Operations, 873 F.2d 655,
659 (3d Cir. 1989). All federal and state claims against MCPO must therefore dismissed.
The Eleventh Amendment does not, however, prohibit personal liability of individual
state officials sued under § 1983 for alleged constitutional violations. Hafer v. Melo, 502
U.S. 21, 31 (1991) (“[S]tate officials, sued in their individual capacities, are ‘persons’
within the meaning of § 1983 . . . nor are state officers absolutely immune from personal
liability under § 1983 solely by virtue of the ‘official’ nature of their acts.”). Instead, the
individual Defendants assert absolute and qualified immunity defenses.
A. Absolute Immunity
Absolute immunity protects state prosecutors from suit for actions taken during
the course of “initiating and conducting prosecutions.” Burns v. Reed, 500 U.S. 478, 485
(1991) (citing Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 427-28 (1976)). Only those acts
“intimately associated with judicial phase of the criminal process” are immune from civil
suit. Imbler, 424 U.S. at 430. Examples include “professional evaluation of the evidence
assembled by the police” when determining to pursue charges, see Buckley v.
Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993); a prosecutor’s appearance at a probable cause
hearing, Burns, 500 U.S. at 487-88; the presentation of evidence in support of a search
warrant, id. at 489; and a “prosecutor’s management of a trial-related information
system,” Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, 555 U.S. 335, 349 (2009). Even abhorrent behavior,
The other Defendants—Roxbury Township, Detective Jack Niemynski, and Thahn Nguyef
(witness to the robbery)—do not join in the motion. On December 12, 2016, while this motion
was pending, Magistrate Judge Mark Falk issued a scheduling order opening discovery to all
parties until August 31, 2017. ECF No. 27.
such as “knowing use of false testimony” before a grand jury or a trial, is immune from
civil suit. See Burns, 500 U.S. at 485.
Of course, the scope of absolute immunity is not absolute. It does not apply to
“investigative functions normally performed by a detective or police officer,” like
“searching for the clues and corroboration that might give [rise to] probable cause,” even
where such conduct is undertaken by a prosecutor. Buckley, 509 U.S. at 273-74. Nor does
absolute immunity apply to a prosecutor’s advice to police regarding the existence of
probable cause in support of a search warrant. Burns, 500 U.S. at 492-93 (characterizing
such advice as occurring at an “investigative” rather than “judicial phase” of a criminal
Here, Assistant Prosecutor DeNegri’s decision to prosecute T.F.R. and not to
prosecute an alternative suspect are protected by absolute immunity. In contrast, Burns
makes clear that DeNegri’s role in advising police to pursue a search warrant does not
enjoy absolute immunity. Compl. § 43. As discussed below, however, those actions are
nonetheless shielded by qualified immunity.
As for Defendant Knapp, the assertion that he “supervised and controlled the
investigation” of T.F.R. does not adequately allege that Knapp, as Prosecutor, engaged in
any non-prosecutorial conduct in relation to T.F.R.’s case. In other words, Defendant
Knapp is absolutely immune from liability for prosecutorial decisions, and there is no
indication that he personally participated in the investigation of T.F.R. See Rode v.
Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207 (3d Cir.1988) (“A defendant in a civil rights action
must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated
solely on the operation of respondeat superior.”). He is therefore immune from suit in
B. Qualified Immunity
While absolute immunity does not apply to Assistant Prosecutor DeNegri’s role in
pursuing a search warrant or Officer Higgs’ investigation of T.F.R., such conduct is
shielded by qualified immunity.
The doctrine of qualified immunity shields government officials who perform
discretionary functions “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not
violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person
would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). “Under the twostep sequence for resolving claims of qualified immunity, [Courts] must determine whether
the alleged or proven conduct of the defendant violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights.”
Carroll v. Clifford Twp., 625 F. App’x 43, 47 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Pearson v. Callahan,
555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009)). Second, Courts ask whether the right was “clearly established
at the time of [the] defendant’s misconduct.” Id. (internal quotation marks and alterations
omitted). Courts have “discretion to perform [this] inquiry in the order [they] deem most
appropriate for the particular case before [them].” Santini v. Fuentes, 795 F.3d 410, 418
(3d Cir. 2015) (citing Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236).
Fourth Amendment Claim (Count I)
Count I alleges that Defendant DeNegri violated T.F.R.’s Fourth Amendment
rights when she advised police to apply for a search warrant for T.F.R.’s home. See U.S.
Const. amend. IV. This advice was predicated on the Nguyef’s eye-witness identification
of T.M.R., which was corroborated by a surveillance video showing a perpetrator similar
in height to T.F.R. “It is well established that an identification from a single, credible
witness can be sufficient for probable cause.” Scott v. Farrell, 2013 WL 6474488, at *3
(Dec. 10, 2013) (citing Sharrar v. Felsing, 128 F.3d 810, 818-19 (3d Cir. 1997)). Further,
there is no clearly established obligation for an investigator “to undertake an exhaustive
investigation in order to validate the probable cause that, in his mind, already existed.”
Merkle v. Upper Dublin Sch. Dist., 211 F.3d 782, 790 n.8 (3d Cir. 2000). Defendants
DeNegri and Higgs are entitled to qualified immunity from Plaintiffs’ Fourth
Amendment claim, since the officials did not violate any “clearly established” Fourth
Due Process Claims (Counts II and III)
Counts Two and Three allege that Defendants “failed to investigate exculpatory
evidence” and subjected T.F.R. to “prolonged detention and pretrial deprivation of
liberty,” Compl. § 105. There is no clearly established right to avoid pretrial detention.
Rather, pretrial detention is a routine aspect of our criminal justice system. See, e.g.,
United v. Salerno, 481 U.S. 739, 738-39 (1987); United States v. El-Hage, 213 F.3d 74,
79 (2d. Cir. 2000) (pretrial detention of 30-33 months did not violate due process).
Moreover, case law does not clearly establish that investigators must pursue allegedly
exculpatory evidence regarding different suspects. See Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137,
145–46 (1979) (“[W]e do not think a sheriff executing an arrest warrant is required by the
Constitution to investigate independently every claim of innocence, whether the claim is
based on mistaken identity or a defense such as lack of requisite intent.”). The Complaint
does not plausibly allege that Defendants DeNegri or Higgs violated any “clearly
established” procedural or substantive due process rights.
Conspiracy to Violate 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Count Seven alleges that Defendants conspired to violate rights protected by
Section § 1983. As discussed above, however, no violation of a “clearly established”
right occurred. Count Seven is dismissed.
C. State Claims
Because the Court now dismisses all federal claims, it declines to exercise
supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ state law claims against Defendants DeNegri,
Knapp and Higgs.
Defendants’ motion to dismiss is GRANTED. All claims against Defendants
Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, Fredric Knapp, Samantha DeNegri, and Keisha
Higgs are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.
/s/ William J. Martini
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, U.S.D.J.
January 23, 2017
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?