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Sunday, September 18, 2016

LEONIDES VELAZQUEZ VS. CITY OF CAMDEN AND OFFICER ALEXIS RAMOS A-4627-13T4


LEONIDES VELAZQUEZ VS. CITY OF CAMDEN AND OFFICER ALEXIS RAMOS
A-4627-13T4
We reverse the no-cause verdict in this New Jersey Civil Rights Act action brought by the victim of a police shooting against a Camden police officer and the involuntary dismissal of the case against the officer's employer, City of Camden, on the basis of two critical evidentiary errors.
First, the trial court, over plaintiff's objection, permitted an assistant prosecutor who headed the homicide unit to testify that after reviewing the investigation of the shooting, he determined not to criminally prosecute the officer. The obvious import of that testimony was that the prosecutor believed the officer's shooting of plaintiff was a justifiable use of force. We conclude the assistant prosecutor's opinion was clearly inadmissible under the lay opinion rule, N.J.R.E. 701, and because the jury could very well "have ascribed almost determinative significance to that opinion," Neno v. Clinton, 167 N.J. 573, 587 (2001), the error could not be considered harmless.
Second, the trial court barred plaintiff from making any reference to the officer's mental health records, reasoning that because excessive force claims are analyzed under the Fourth Amendment's "objective reasonableness" standard, the officer's subjective state of mind was irrelevant to whether his use of force was objectively reasonable under the circumstances. Plaintiff, however, never sought to use the records to challenge the officer's subjective motivation in firing on him. Instead, plaintiff sought to use the records to challenge the officer's perceptions and his ability to make observations, a classic use of extrinsic evidence to impugn a witness's credibility under N.J.R.E. 607.
We conclude that interpreting the "objective reasonableness" standard for evaluating excessive force claims so expansively as to preclude a cross-examiner from probing whether the officer's psychiatric symptoms affected his ability to accurately perceive the events giving rise to the claim, was error. Because the ruling severely prejudiced plaintiff in his ability to prove his excessive force claim against the officer and gutted his Monell claim against the City, we reverse the verdicts in defendants' favor and remand for a new trial.