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Court allows false arrest lawsuit to proceed, despite cops’ immunity claim

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Court allows false arrest lawsuit to proceed, despite cops’ immunity claim

Oct 03, 2022 | 7:13 am ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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Court allows false arrest lawsuit to proceed, despite cops’ immunity claim
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Palisades Interstate Park police who mistook candyfor drugs lost an appeal in the false arrest lawsuit a Massachusetts man filed against them. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

When police pulled Fernando Saint-Jean over on the Palisades Interstate Parkway in 2018, they decided heart-shaped Valentine’s Day candies in the car were drugs — and it took authorities four months to drop criminal charges after lab tests confirmed it was candy.

A federal court now is allowing Saint-Jean’s wrongful arrest lawsuit against the officers involved to proceed, saying it lacks jurisdiction to decide their claim that their status as government officials means they can’t be held liable for violating his constitutional rights, a legal defense known as qualified immunity.

The incident began on May 6, 2018, when Saint-Jean set off for his Massachusetts home after attending a family birthday party the day before in New Jersey, according to the recent ruling.

As Saint-Jean drove with his uncle in northern New Jersey, a Palisades Interstate Park Police officer pulled their car over for driving too slowly and having tinted windows. An officer asked the men what country they were from, ordered them out of the car to frisk them, and requested to search the car, which Saint-Jean agreed to, according to court documents.

The officers found three sealed bags with heart-shaped candies, asked Saint-Jean what they were, and then arrested, handcuffed, and drove him to the station, where they fingerprinted and charged him with possessing a controlled substance and a traffic offense, court documents show.

The officers ignored Saint-Jean’s offer to connect them with the coworker who gifted him the candies and did not test the candies, according to court paperwork. Saint-Jean left the police station a few hours later, and two months later, the New Jersey State Police Office of Forensic Sciences analyzed the hearts and verified they were candy.

It took another four months before the criminal charges got dismissed in November 2018.

Saint-Jean sued in April 2019 for false arrest and malicious prosecution, naming in his lawsuit Officers Michael Holland, Fabricio Salazar, Peter Wojckik, and Richard Dey, the police department, its then-chief Michael Coppola, municipal prosecutor Andrew Samson, and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.

The defendants all asked the court to dismiss the complaint, with the officers raising qualified immunity defenses. While a federal district court partially granted their motion, it allowed Saint-Jean’s Fourth Amendment claim against the officers to proceed. The officers appealed, and late last month, a three-judge federal appeals panel dismissed their appeal, saying they can’t hear the appeal because Saint-Jean amended his initial complaint before the officers appealed the lower court ruling.

Attorneys handling Saint-Jean’s case did not respond to a request for comment.

At the time of Saint-Jean’s arrest, the Palisades Interstate Park Police Department was deeply troubled. Coppola resigned in August 2018 after being caught in a sting trying to buy cocaine, and the department was so dogged by misconduct accusations, especially related to police chases, that the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office took it over to ensure reforms were implemented, according to press reports.

Criminal justice reformers have fought for years to end qualified immunity for police officers, saying they too often resort to that defense to dodge accountability for misconduct. Several bills that would eliminate or restrict qualified immunity for law enforcement officers have been introduced but remain stalled in the New Jersey Legislature. Police unions have fought such efforts.