A Law Enforcement Officer Acting In Good Faith And Possessing Probable Cause Will Not Be Liable For Constitutional Rights Violations Under 42 USC 1983, Et. Seq.
The Fourth Amendment gives rise to a claim, cognizable under Section 1983, for the constitutional tort of arrest without probable cause, which has long been recognized. See Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 (1961); Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985); Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593, 599 (1988). Such harms are compensable whether or not the arrest was malicious, so long as the arrest lacked probable cause. See Pfannstiel v. City of Marion, 918 F.2d 1178 (5th Cir. 1990); Currier v. Balridge, 914 F.2d 993 (7th Cir. 1990) cert. denied, 111 S.Ct. 1588 (1991); Marx v. Gumbinner, 905 F.2d 1503 (11th Cir. 1990).
The Eighth Circuit has succinctly described the purpose of Section 1983 as follows. Section 1983 serves basically two functions: it deters future governmental action that violates persons’ civil rights…and it compensates the injured party. When these two purposes are achieved, the substantive constitutional guarantee at stake is vindicated and the harmed party is made whole.” Herrera v. Valentine, 653 F.2d 1220,1227(8th Cir. 1981).(Citations omitted).
The defense of good faith and probable cause, which is available to a police officer in a common law action for false arrest and imprisonment, is also available to him in an action under Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 (42 U.S.C. Section 1983). Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547 (1967). Under the prevailing view, a peace officer who arrests someone with probable cause is not liable for false arrest simply because the innocence of the suspect is later proved. Pierson, supra. Though an indefinite standard, probable cause has been discussed by the Third Circuit as follows: Probable cause is “defined in terms of facts and circumstances ‘sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the [suspect] had committed or was committing an offense.’ This standard is meant to ‘safeguard citizens from rash and unreasonable interferences with privacy’ and to provide ‘leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.'”
We have stated that ‘[t]he determination that probable cause exists for a warrantless arrest is fundamentally a factual analysis that must be performed by the officers at the scene. It is the function of the court to determine whether the objective facts available to the officers at the time of the arrest were sufficient to justify a reasonable belief that an offense [had been] committed.’ A court must look at the ‘totality of the circumstances’ and use a ‘common sense’ approach to the issue of probable cause.
In a Section 1983 action, the issue of whether there was probable cause to make an arrest is usually a question for the jury, but ‘where no genuine issue as to any material fact exists and where credibility conflicts are absent, summary judgment may be appropriate.’ The question is for the jury only if there is sufficient evidence whereby a jury could reasonably find that the police officers did not have probable cause to arrest. Sharrar v. Felsing 128 F.3d 810, 817-818 (3rd Cir. 1997) (Citations omitted). (Emphasis added).
When a trial court determines the reasonableness of a police officer’s seizure, the court must stand in the officer’s shoes and judge the reasonableness of his actions based upon the information he possessed and the judgment he exercised in responding to the situation. Rodriguez v. City of Patterson 730 F.Supp. 1314, aff’d without opinion, 914 F.2d 244 (3rd Cir, 1990).
Additionally, the New Jersey Tort Claims Act specifically immunizes public employees where they perform their acts in the execution and enforcement of any law. Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:3-3, “a public employee is not liable if he acts in good faith in execution of enforcement of any law.” In Bombace v. The City of Newark, 125 N.J. 361 (1991), the New Jersey Supreme Court had the opportunity to evaluate this Tort Claim Act section and emphasized that this section only applies where a public employee has actually performed an action in the execution of enforcement of the law. See also Perona v. Township of Mullica, 270 N.J. Super. 19, 30 (App. Div 1994); Kelty v. State Department of Law, 321 N.J. Super.84, 94 (App.Div 1999). Under the plain meaning of the statute, once such an action has been taken by a public employee, it is only the “good faith” enforcement of the law which is protected.
To obtain the benefit of the immunity of N.J.S.A. 59:3-3, the public employee must either demonstrate an “objective reasonableness” of his act or establish that he acted with “subjective good faith.” Alston v. The City of Camden, 168 N.J. 170, 186 (2001) citing Fiedler v. Stonack, 141 N.J. 101, 131, (1995). See also Tice v. Cramer, 133 N.J. 347, 374 (1993). Thus, if the public employee can prove either that he acted objectively reasonable or he acted with subjective good faith, the immunity attaches. Alston, 168 N.J. at 186.
When evaluating the good faith standard pursuant to N.J.S.A. 59:3-3, a court must first determine whether the public employee’s conduct is objectively reasonable. Brayshaw v. Gelber , 232 N.J. Super. 99, 109-110 (App. Div 1989). (Emphasis added). Thus, where a public entity or public employee can establish that his conduct was objectively reasonable the “good faith” immunity will apply. Lear v. Township of Piscataway, 236 N.J. Super. 550 (App. Div 1989) (where it was held objectively reasonable to use leg shackles to restrain a prisoner being transported); Mesgleski v. Oraboni, 339 N.J. Super. 10, 25-27 (App. Div. 2000) (where a police officer’s arrest of a plaintiff was objectively reasonable after the plaintiff assaulted the officer). Importantly, where a public employee fails to establish objective reasonableness, the subjective good faith of the employee then becomes an issue. Bombace, supra. 374. The public employee will still be entitled to the immunity if it can be established that the employee acted with subjective good faith. Id.; Hayes v. Mercer County, 217 N.J. Super. 614, (622 (App. Div.) certif. den. 108 N.J. 643 (1987).
Furthermore, negligence on the part of the law enforcement officers will not defeat the immunity provided by N.J.S.A. 59:3-3. In Wood v. City of Linden, 218 N.J. Super. 11, 17 (App. Div 1987), it was held that, as long as a public employee, such as a police officer, acts in good faith in the execution in the enforcement of the law, he is immune from liability under N.J.S.A. 59:3-3, even for the negligent performance of his ministerial functions.
A similar grant of immunity was held to be available to a police officer in Tice, supra. In Tice, the Appellate Division held that police officers were immunized for deaths and injuries to third parties caused by a high speed chase where there was no evidence that they began or continued the chase in bad faith. Id. at 649-650. See Evans v. Elizabeth Police Department, 190 N.J. Super. 633 (Law Div. 1983); Expo. Inc. v. City of Passaic, et al., 149 N.J. Super. 416 (Law Div 1977).