Sunday, March 10, 2013

IA Complaint against Stafford (Ocean County) police officer

Police Accountability Project of the
New Jersey Libertarian Party
P.O. Box 5424
Somerset, NJ  08875

March 10, 2013

Director, Internal Affairs Unit
Stafford Township Police Department
260 East Bay Ave
Manahawkin, NJ  08050-3329
(via e-mail to Chief Joseph Giberson at JGiberson@staffordpolice.org)

Dear Sir or Madam:

Please accept this e-mail as our Internal Affairs complaint against a Stafford Township police officer whose identity is not yet known to us.  He is depicted on a video taken by a patrol car's dash-mounted camera as having patted down and reached inside the pockets of a man who was the subject of a December 26, 2012, 12:37 p.m. traffic stop. 


We ask that you please accept this complaint in the spirit in which it is intended.  We are not seeking to have the officer punished as much as we wish to educate ourselves, your department and the public on the limits the state and federal constitutions impose on officers who conduct warrantless searches.

We base our complaint upon United States District Court Judge Freda L. Wolfson's July 19, 2011 opinion in Maria Broadnax v. Borough of North Plainfield, et al, Case No. 3:10-cv-00837, which is available on-line here.  The issue before Judge Wolfson was "whether [the police officer's] actions in seizing [Ms. Broadnax], and searching her by reaching his hand into jeans pockets, violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure." (Opinion, page 10).  (Following Judge Wolfson's opinion is a settlement agreement showing that Ms. Broadnax and her lawyer received a $5,000 settlement on her claim that her Fourth Amendment rights were violated.)

Judge Wolfson first found that an officer is not allowed to pat down an occupant of a motor vehicle unless "he has a reasonable suspicion that the occupant might be armed and dangerous.”  In order for the Stafford officer's pat-down to be constitutional, he would need to point to “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warranted the pat-down.”  (Opinion, page 11). We would like the Internal Affairs Unit to determine if the officer, under this standard, was justified in conducting his pat-down search.

The next issue is the constitutionality of the officer reaching his hands inside the man's pockets.  As noted by Judge Wolfson, the United States Supreme Court has drawn a "bright-line distinction between an officer patting down an individual's 'outer clothing' and an officer 'placing his hands in their pockets.'" (Opinion, page 13)  As the court explained, it is one thing for an officer to protect himself and others by patting down the outside of a person's clothing to detect a protrusion, which might be a gun, knife or other weapon.  It is quite another, however, for "an officer [to reach] into an individual’s pocket without reasonably concluding that the individual was armed and dangerous."  (Opinion, page 15)  Here, it appears that the Stafford officer "did not limit his initial search to [the man's] outer clothing 'until he . . . felt weapons,' but bypassed this critical step" without apparent justification.  We would like the Internal Affairs Unit to determine if circumstances existed that justified this officer reaching into the man's pockets.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.  We look forward to hearing from you.  Also, we direct your attention to the following Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request and ask that you please forward it to your records custodian.

Very truly yours,

John Paff, Chairman
Police Accountability Project
Voice: 732-873-1251
Fax: 908-325-0129
E-mail: paff@pobox.com

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OPRA request

Please accept this e-mail as my request for government records in accordance with the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the common law right of access.  Please respond and send all responsive documents to me via e-mail at paff@pobox.com.  If e-mail is not possible, please fax responses and responsive records to me at 908-325-0129.  Also, I would appreciate it if you would acknowledge your receipt of this e-mail.

1. A record showing the name, title, position and salary of the officer against whom the Libertarian Party's March 4, 2013 complaint was filed.  (This information is accessible under N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.)

2. Any rule, regulation, standard operating procedure or other writing that addresses the duty of Stafford police officers to not violate a citizen's right to be free from impermissible searches and seizures.

3. All summonses arising out of the traffic stop depicted on the video that formed the basis of the Libertarian Party's March 4, 2013 complaint.
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Subsequent action:

March 19, 2013  Acknowledgement
April 9, 2013 Closing Letter (Not Sustained)