A university police department detective who ordered the arrest of two students who would later be expelled for sexual assault allegations must first prove the reasonableness of the arrests before she can be determined immune from their civil rights lawsuit, a federal appeals court has ruled.
A Jane Doe filed charges against her William Paterson University classmates, Garrett Collick and Noah Williams, claiming they sexually assaulted her. The two were arrested, but a New Jersey grand jury declined to indict them, according to Third Circuit Judge Jane R. Roth’s opinion.
Collick and Williams sued the university, its police department, and detective Ellen DeSimone for alleged violations of Title IX, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the state constitution, and the Fourth, Fifth and 14th amendments.
The trial court held that DeSimone was not protected by qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment claim because there were not enough facts to support the assertion that the defendants did not violate the plaintiffs’ rights. The Third Circuit agreed.
“We have reviewed the pleadings and heard oral argument. We agree with the district court’s conclusion that it could not grant qualified immunity to DeSimone on the Fourth Amendment claim,” Roth said. “Our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence establishes that DeSimone’s entitlement to qualified immunity depends on the objective reasonableness of her actions at the time she applied for the arrest warrants.”
The judge continued, “Deciding whether DeSimone acted reasonably requires a determination of facts concerning what DeSimone knew when she sought the warrant and whether that knowledge would have caused a reasonable officer to investigate further. To resolve that issue, we need more facts.”
Roth said that discovery may show that DeSimone acted reasonably by not investigating further steps after she received Doe’s report or that DeSimone made no pertinent omissions in her warrant applications. Or it might show the opposite, Roth said—the point being, those facts were not available to the district judge.
Reached by phone, Michael J. Epstein of the Epstein Law Firm in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, who represented the plaintiffs, said he was pleased with the decision and that the lawsuit was aimed at clearing his clients’ names.
“Given the amount of time that’s passed we’re not trying to get them back into the college but we’re trying to get their records cleared,” he said.
The defendants’ attorney, Matthew Beck of Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi in West Orange, New Jersey, referred comment to the state Attorney General’s Office, which declined to comment.