Civil Rights Attorney Case: False Gun Arrest

CIVIL RIGHTS ATTORNEY SUES MONMOUTH COUNTY SHERIFF OFFICERS FOR WRONGFUL ARREST.

A civil rights attorney sued three Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers. He claimed that they false charges against his client. In this post, I summarize a  New Jersey Supreme Court  ruling  on the case.

On December 15, 2010, Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officers Alexander Torres and Thomas Ruocco arrived at a Matawan address. They came to arrest Eric Morillo on a child-support warrant. The address was the one listed on the warrant. (It later turned out the address was actually that of Morillo’s mother.)  Officer Ruocco went around the side of the home. He discovered Morillo sitting in an idling car.  Idling in the driveway of the home.

Morillo told Ruocco that he was carrying a loaded weapon. Ruocco seized the weapon. He called Officer Torres to assist. Morillo and a companion were removed from the vehicle. The officers patted them down. Morillo was arrested on the child-support warrant.

While still at the scene, Ruocco phoned his supervisor, Sergeant Cooper.

Ruocco did not ask Morillo at the scene whether he had a permit to carry the gun. But while on the way to police headquarters, Morillo informed the officers that the handgun was registered to him.  Morillo said that he had “paperwork” for it. Morillo also told Ruocco that the home was his mother’s and that he had lived in different places. Ruocco later claimed he assumed that Morillo was living at the home at the time of the arrest, because the officers found Morillo there.

Officers Make Admission.

The officers later admitted that they never asked Morillo at the scene whether the firearm paperwork was in the house. But  they told Sergeant Cooper that Morillo claimed to have such paperwork.

The officers’ claimed they only considered charging Morillo with unlawful possession of a gun in the first place because he was found with the loaded gun outside the house.

Sergeant Cooper telephoned a representative of the prosecutor’s office.  Cooper asked for advice whether Morillo should be charged with a weapons offense.

Brennan advised Cooper that Morillo could be charged with second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun. So Morillo was charged.

Morillo posted bail on the child-support warrant. But he could not afford to pay the bail set on the weapons charge. On January 14, 2011, Morillo’s family posted bail for him. Morillo finally was released from jail.

Government Drops Charges.

On March 30, 2011,  the weapons charge was dropped. Confirmation came in from the State Police that Morillo’s handgun had been purchased with the proper registration,

Accordingly, Morillo hired a civil rights attorney.  The civil rights attorney filed a court complaint against sheriff’s officers Ruocco, Torres, and Cooper. The civil rights lawyer claimed that Morillo’s civil rights had been violated by the improper arrest on the gun charge, and his subsequent incarceration.  The officers’ lawyers filed a motion to dismiss Morillo’s claim. The defense lawyers asserted that the officers could not be sued by Morillo.  They relied on a legal doctrine called “qualified immunity.”

The civil rights attorney was initially successful. The trial judge denied the officers’ motion.  The judge deemed it impermissible for Morillo to be charged with unlawful possession of a weapon. The gun he carried was lawfully registered to him.  He was at his present residence when he was found carrying the weapon. Thus, “the crime charged was legally impossible.   The officers had no probable cause to arrest Morillo whatsoever. In sum, the judge found that the officers’ actions were not  reasonable.

The officers’ appealed. Appellate judges confirmed the trial judge’s ruling. Therefore, the officers’ lawyers then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The officers’ lawyers argued that the doctrine of “qualified immunity” shielded the officers from liability. The defense lawyers relied a two-stage test for qualified immunity.  The U.S. Supreme Court  spelled out the test in 2001.   Under the test, to overcome qualified immunity, someone like Morillo suing the   police has to prove that the officers’ actions violated a constitutional right. He also must prove that reasonable police officers would have found the conduct of the officers being sued unlawful. The civil rights attorney argued that his case met the test. 

Supreme Court Still Rules Against Victim.

The court noted that Morillo was staying at his mother’s house, not his own.  The law is clear that, had he been found inside his own house with the gun, he could not have been charged for gun possession. But the law was not as clear as to whether a gun permit allowed one to carry a gun outside a house one did not own.

Therefore, it couldn’t be said that the officers lacked probable cause.  Or that they acted unreasonably. The Supreme Court thus ruled against the civil rights attorney.  It ordered that the charges against the officers be dismissed.

I respectfully disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling. The civil rights attorney filed a  case that  should have gone to a jury.  I believe that Morillo was charged with gun possession in the first place only because he didn’t have a permit on him. All the officers had to do was to let him retrieve his permit.  Accordingly, he didn’t have to spend three and a half months in jail on a bogus charge. Nor should taxpayers have had to pay for keeping him there.

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