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Appellate Division Limits Application of "Good Faith" Law Enforcement Immunity for Public Entities

The Appellate Division recently issued an opinion discussing the scope of the “Good Faith” Law Enforcement Immunity (N.J.S.A. 59:3-3) under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. In Caicedo v. Caicedo, No. A-6163-12T2 (App. Div. March 17, 2015), the minor Plaintiff was severely injured when he was struck by Defendant Newark police officer’s cruiser while crossing the street riding his bicycle. At the time, the Officer was transporting a recently arrested prisoner to police headquarters for processing. 

The Officer had arrested a suspected drug dealer for wandering, and was transporting the prisoner back to headquarters in an unmarked police unit. The police vehicle had no partition; however, the Officer’s partner sat in the rear seat next to the handcuffed prisoner. The Officer testified that he first observed Plaintiff from about forty yards away, and attempted to switch lanes to avoid Plaintiff, but oncoming traffic caused him to swerve again and hit Plaintiff’s bike. The officer stated that he did not stop on initially seeing the Plaintiff because he wanted to get back to headquarter due to the fact that the car did not have a cage, and his observation that he could safely go around the Plaintiff.

Prior to trial, Plaintiff made a motion in limine to bar Defendants from asserting the good-faith immunity defense provided in N.J.S.A. 59:3-3. This section provides that “[a] public employee is not liable if he [or she] acts in good faith in the execution or enforcement of any law.” After hearing police testimony, the trial judge determined not to instruct the jury on this defense. The judge reasoned that while he found both cases on either side—those saying this situation was the continuation of an effectuation of arrest, and those that would say this was merely transporting—there was no evidence that this instance included any sort of “high crime,” or evidence of resistance, and because there was no danger held that the immunity did not apply in this situation. The jury found for Plaintiff. Defendants appealed, arguing that the court erred in denying jury instructions on the good-faith immunity defense.

The Appellate Division explained that under the Tort Claims Act the public entity bears the burden of proof for establishing immunity. The court must ask if the identified cause or condition is one intended to be immunized under the Tort Claims Act. Defendants argued that the Officer was enforcing the law when the collision occurred because the suspect’s arrest had not yet been completed, pointing to the Newark Police Department’s policy and procedures for processing arrests, which include transporting a prisoner to the precinct. Plaintiff argued that the good-faith immunity is not applicable where police are involved in ministerial acts, like patrolling the streets or transporting prisoners, but that the Tort Claims Act provides immunity where police are acting under heightened circumstances, such as responding to a crime, accident, or emergency, or where they must make split-second decisions.

Judge Carroll, writing for the Appellate Division, noted that the case law favored Plaintiff’s position. The Court’s research did not include any cases in New Jersey directly on point with the facts presented. Looking to Illinois case law and analogous public entity tort law, the Appellate Division was persuaded that the Officer was not acting in the “execution of any law” such that the immunity provision was implicated under the given facts. The Court noted that record here lacked any emergent circumstances. While Judge Carroll described this as a close case, he wrote that the Court saw no reason that the Officer in this case should not be held to the same standard of care as an ordinary citizen driving. 

The Appellate Division’s decision in Caicedo strikes a blow to limiting liability against public entities, the dominant theme of the Tort Claims Act. In limiting the scope of the Act’s good-faith law enforcement immunity, the Court opens the door for future instances of liability against police officers (and their employers) transporting prisoners to police headquarters post-arrest, or potentially in other similar instances. Moreover, the decision potentially dictates to police departments the contours of police policy and procedure. As noted in the decision, the City of Newark’s policy for arrests included transporting the prisoner to the precinct. The same or similar procedure is likely present in police departments across the state. For now, this recent decision puts public entities on notice of the potential for liability for claims brought under similar circumstances.