In a recent published decision in the matter of Cruz v. Dougherty, A-1276-19T3 (App. Div. Jan. 11, 2021), New Jersey’s Appellate Division affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a New Jersey Civil Rights Act lawsuit against a detective employed by the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. The basis of the claim was the arrest and subsequent acquittal of the Plaintiff on murder charges, after he spent two years in jail awaiting and during trial. Plaintiff had filed suit as to the investigating detective, focusing his claims primarily on the detective’s grand jury testimony. Plaintiff alleged that the detective omitted testimony, particularly concerning the witness who had identified Plaintiff out of a photo array. The witness was fourteen years old, had only seen the side of the shooter’s face, and her identification was not always confident.
During trial, the witness at issue testified that she could not identify Plaintiff as the shooter, and he was acquitted. The civil suit followed. Plaintiff did not allege that the defendant Detective Dougherty’s grand jury testimony was untruthful – but merely that his failure to volunteer additional information was a violation of his civil rights under New Jersey’s Constitution and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act. There was no dispute that the Plaintiff was arrested pursuant to a judge’s finding of probable cause and issuance of a warrant; and no dispute that the Defendant’s testimony had been truthful in response to questions posed by a prosecuting attorney.
On a motion for summary judgment, the trial court dismissed the suit, finding that there was civil immunity for providing grand jury testimony. On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed, and found for the first time that the absolute immunity from federal § 1983 claims for grand jury testimony established in Rehberg v. Paulk, 566 U.S. 356 (2012) also applied to claims arising under New Jersey’s Civil Rights Act (“NJCRA”). The Court held that the rule of Rehberg will apply to the NJCRA, when it is alleged that a witness has omitted testimony. The Court declined to rule on whether the absolute immunity of Rehberg would apply when it as alleged that a witness provided false testimony, however.
The Court also affirmed the dismissal, finding that Detective Dougherty was entitled to qualified immunity; and that the existence of probable cause at the time of Plaintiff’s arrest provided a defense.