A recently reported decision, Greenberg v. New Jersey State Police Trooper, 426 N.J. Super. 591 (App. Div. 2012), is disturbing in two respects. First, there was the State Police apparently acting as a collection agency for a local merchant to the extent of harassing and then arresting the plaintiff who had a minor civil dispute with a friend of local State Police officers. Second was the trial court’s probable cause finding, accepting the local practice and dismissing the plaintiff’s claims for false imprisonment, false arrest, battery, defamation, conspiracy and § 1983 and civil rights violations.
The dispute arose when plaintiff Richard Greenberg and the merchant disagreed about the efficacy of a minor car battery repair and the plaintiff stopped payment on a $129.44 check. Greenberg closed his bank account, subtracted the amount paid for a second repair and sent the merchant a check on a new account at the same bank for the difference, $31.02. The merchant returned the new check and threatened a small claims suit. The plaintiff welcomed the suit (which he eventually won).
The merchant was friendly with the local State Police. He would regularly telephone them with his collection problems with checks or credit cards, and the troopers would prepare reports which the merchant would use in small claims court. Additionally, troopers would go to the customers’ houses, transport them to the merchant’s place of business and tell the customers “if you don’t pay this bill you’re going to be charged. So if you’re smart, you’ll take care of your obligation and that will be the end of it.”
In Greenberg’s case, a variant of this procedure was followed. State Trooper Nicholas Pryszlak knew that the dispute involved a dissatisfied customer and that the merchant intended to file in small claims court. Pryszlak twice left messages on Greenberg’s answering machine that there “had been a complaint filed against him in the Township.” When Greenberg checked the next day, he found this to be untrue. The telephone calls continued, and Greenberg felt he was being harassed by a friend of the merchant. Pryszlak obtained written statements from the merchant and a copy of Greenberg’s explanatory letter and then went to the plaintiff’s home “to steer him in the right direction.” He read the bad check statute (N.J.S.A. 2C:21-5) to Greenberg and told him he would be charged if he did not pay the $129.44. But he found Greenberg arrogant in that he said he would not pay. Greenberg stated in a deposition that Pryszlak would not listen to his side of the story. Pryszlak’s deposition showed that he understood that the account had been closed only after Greenberg later became dissatisfied (thus when the check was given, Greenberg did not know that it would be dishonored, a requirement of the statute). Greenberg insisted that he did not pass a bad check, and he knew of the friendship between the local troopers and the merchant. Pryszlak collected all of the documents and told Greenberg that he would give them to a detective to determine whether a crime had been committed. Greenberg thought the matter was closed and would be decided in small claims court.
Ten days later, Pryszlak returned to Greenberg’s home and pounded on the door until Greenberg’s wife opened it. Greenberg came to the foyer and was told to get dressed, “you’re coming with me … [y]ou’re under arrest.” There was no arrest warrant. Greenberg was handcuffed, led outside, put into a State Police vehicle, driven to the station and handcuffed to a bench. A sergeant said to him, [y]ou’re not such a tough bastard now, are you, Greenberg.” The plaintiff then agreed with the sergeant to pay the merchant, whereupon he was told after 15 minutes that the merchant would take the money, and then was released. No criminal charges were filed against him.
The trial judge determined that Pryszlak had probable cause to arrest Greenberg and entered summary judgment on all of Greenberg’s claims. The Appellate Division, in an opinion by Judge Clarkson Fisher Jr., reversed, stressing the glaring factual issues surrounding warrantless arrest in the plaintiff’s home for a disorderly persons offense, the lack of exigent circumstances, the issue of probable cause, qualified immunity, civil conspiracy and the many other factors in the case. Even the state’s late assertion that Greenberg’s wife invited the trooper to enter is subject to factual question, and as noted in the opinion, there was no claim that the trooper informed her that his entry was to arrest Greenberg. In the face of these multiple factual issues on virtually all salient points in the case (except an issue about an expert’s report, where the trial judge was affirmed), the trial judge granted summary judgment for defendants on all issues.
We are thankful that we have an appellate court that provides objective — but expensive and time-consuming — review of cases such as these. However, the trial courts should perform this service. Although there may be additional facts to come out, it appears from the quotation of depositions and other statements in this 22-page opinion that the plaintiff was treated shabbily by the merchant, the State Police and the trial court. We are not so naive and understand that most bad-check charges are mediated by law enforcement officers, but where it is readily apparent that there is a bona fide commercial dispute, the police cannot strong arm “settlements” for friends.
We suggest that there is a need for additional police training on this subject. We are further disheartened by the trial court’s finding of probable cause for the plaintiff’s warrantless arrest in his home without exigent circumstances. Perhaps there is also a need for additional judicial training on the necessary independence of the judiciary from any affinity for local law enforcement and businesses, and the types of legal issues presented in this case.