Greenberg v. New Jersey State Police Trooper Pryszlak, A-5925-10T1; Appellate Division; opinion by Fisher, P.J.A.D.; decided and approved for publication June 26, 2012. Before Judges Fisher, Baxter and Nugent. On appeal from the Law Division, Burlington County, L-552-09. [Sat below: Judge Crook.] DDS No. 46-2-6762 [22 pp.]

Following a dispute between plaintiff and defendants Peter Moran and Oil Station Inc. (OSI), which had performed an oil change on plaintiff’s vehicle and allegedly damaged the vehicle’s battery, plaintiff closed the bank account on which he had made payment of $129.44 and provided OSI a check for $31.02, the amount that plaintiff felt was due.

Although the record demonstrates that Moran believed the proper forum for this dispute was small claims court, he nevertheless called the New Jersey State Police. The record also reveals that Moran had called the State Police on numerous occasions to deal with “unruly” customers, bad checks or rejected credit cards. The State Police would send a trooper to prepare a report for Moran’s use in small claims court. On more than one occasion, however, a trooper would go to the customer’s house and bring the customer back to OSI’s place of business, telling the customer, in words or substance, to pay the bill or the customer would be charged.

Here, after Moran contacted the State Police, Trooper Pryszlak conducted an investigation and ultimately concluded there was probable cause to believe plaintiff violated the bad-check statute. Plaintiff was arrested in his home and held at a State Police barracks until he agreed to pay the full amount OSI claimed was due.

Plaintiff brought this action alleging false imprisonment, false arrest, battery, defamation, negligent hiring and supervision, vicarious liability, civil conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, federal and state constitutional violations, a violation of § 1983, and a violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.

The trial judge granted summary judgment to defendants, determining that Pryszlak had probable cause to arrest plaintiff and that all plaintiff’s claims were undercut by that circumstance.

Held: The trial judge erred in summarily dismissing plaintiff’s claims of false imprisonment, false arrest, federal and state constitutional violations, and common-law torts, in connection with his arrest by a New Jersey state trooper based on suspicion that he had passed a bad check.

Plaintiff initially argues that the trial judge erred in concluding that an arrest warrant was not required to arrest plaintiff in his own home. Regardless of the existence of probable cause to make an arrest, a law enforcement officer may not enter a suspect’s home to make an arrest without a warrant, exigent circumstances or consent. Although the state defendants’ contention that Pryszlak had probable cause to arrest plaintiff was colorable, Pryszlak was without an arrest warrant and that no exigent circumstances surrounded this dispute about a $129.44 check. And, although defendants now assert that plaintiff’s wife consented to Pryszlak’s entry into the home, the legitimacy of the arrest turns on whether voluntary consent was given to the entry, a matter that was not ripe for summary judgment.

The absence of a lawful basis for Pryszlak’s entry into plaintiff’s home except consent — as to which there are genuine questions of material fact — requires a reversal of the summary judgment entered in favor of the state defendants.

The appellate panel further concludes that genuine factual disputes exist with regard to probable cause that also precluded summary judgment in favor of the state defendants. The presence of probable cause to arrest is pivotal to the state defendants’ claim of qualified immunity. Plaintiff was arrested based on Pryszlak’s conclusion that plaintiff had violated N.J.S.A. 2C:21-5, a disorderly persons offense because the dishonored check is for less than $200. Nothing in the information available to Pryszlak suggested that plaintiff knowingly intended to pass a bad check to OSI, an element required by the statute. It is not unlawful for an individual to close an account or to stop payment on a check when a dispute develops between the individual and the recipient regarding the goods or services rendered, as here.

The evidence and statements in Pryszlak’s possession revealed the parties were engaged in a minor civil dispute; both plaintiff and Moran expressed to Pryszlak their expectation that the matter would be resolved in small claims court. A fact-finder might ultimately conclude that Pryszlak possessed probable cause to make an arrest, but there is a genuine dispute about that question that could not be resolved on a motion for summary judgment.

Plaintiff further alleged that Moran and OSI engaged in a civil conspiracy with the state defendants to commit the torts of false arrest, false imprisonment and other alleged offenses. The trial judge found that Pryszlak had probable cause to make the arrest and that plaintiff’s claims against the state defendants were, therefore, not viable. Because the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims against Moran and OSI was grounded solely on the judge’s finding that Pryszlak had probable cause, which was erroneously decided at this stage, the summary judgment entered in favor of Moran and OSI also must be reversed. Further, there was evidence to support plaintiff’s theory that OSI and its representative conspired with the state defendants to falsely arrest and imprison plaintiff because, among other things, OSI had previously enlisted the aid of the State Police in the collection of OSI’s unpaid bills.

For appellant — Jose W. Hernandez (The Ferrara Law Firm; Michael A. Ferrara Jr. on the brief). For respondents: Pryszlak, Jones, and the New Jersey State Police — Roshan D. Shah, Deputy Attorney General (Jeffrey S. Chiesa, Attorney General; Lewis A. Scheindlin, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel); Moran and Oil Station Inc. — Erin R. Thompson (Powell, Birchmeier & Powell).