More than four years ago, Palisades Interstate Parkway Police in New Jersey pulled over Fernando Saint-Jean. They found three sealed bags of candy in his car, and charged him with drug possession, without testing the drugs or following up on his offer to get them in touch with the coworker who's gifted him the candies in the first place.
Months later, the charges were dropped. Saint-Jean is suing the police for wrongful arrest, facing off against the officers' claim of qualified immunity — a legal doctrine that can shield law enforcement from personal liability.
New Jersey Monitor's Dana DiFilippo has been reporting on the case, and joined All Things Considered weekend host Tiffany Hanssen to discuss it. The transcript of their conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tiffany Hanssen: So quickly, for folks who might not know the ins and outs of this case, just give us the basics of the night Saint-Jean was arrested. What does he have to say about it, and what do police have to say about what happened?
Dana DiFilippo: Sure. It was a Sunday afternoon. He's from Massachusetts. He had been in the area of [the city of] Elizabeth for a family birthday party the day before, and he was heading home, so it was [2 p.m.] and he sees a car, a police car on the side of the road, and it pulls him over. And the police officer, who is white, tells him that he was driving too slowly and that he had tinted windows.
And so he cooperates, he does everything the police officer tells him to do, which is everything from, you know, "Show me your ID," [to] "Get out of the car." He frisks both him and his uncle, who was riding in the passenger seat. He asked what country they were from. They were Black. Saint-Jean is from Haiti, but he is a citizen here.
And basically, then ... more police officers came, two additional cars came, and they ended up asking him to search the car. He gave permission for them to search the car and that's when they found these candies.
And what did police say about the night that happened?
So police didn't really explain themselves very well to him, which was part of the problem.
He grew really nervous when the two police cars showed up, in addition to the one that had pulled him over, and said, "You know, I don't understand why tinted windows warrants three police cruisers here." And they just decided to take him to the station, where they handcuffed him to a bench and they told him that they believed that the candy was drugs. Specifically, they thought it was ecstasy, and they charged him with possession of drugs, and also they gave him a traffic ticket for the tinted windows.
All right. So then in 2019, Saint-John filed a lawsuit against the police for wrongful arrest. What's been happening since then?
There have been all kinds of motions that have been filed in the case. A number of the defendants have asked to get out of the case. The federal judges have excused some of the defendants from the case [such as municipal prosecutor Andrew Samson]. They have not, though, excused the police officers that were named. And that's been really interesting, because from the get-go, the police officers were resorting to this defense — qualified immunity — saying that because they were police officers, they were shielded from any liability that arose for many constitutional violations that they might have done as a result of this car stop.
So you mentioned qualified immunity. It seems to be a real sticking point in this case. This is the nut of it, right?
It is, yeah. This is the nut of it. So qualified immunity basically protects police officers, law enforcement officers, from personal liability when they violate someone's constitutional rights.
The main point of it, originally, I think, was to protect public officials against frivolous lawsuits. It requires somebody who is trying to sue police officers to show that the police officers violated clearly established law.
So has anything happened in New Jersey [prompted by] critics of the concept of qualified immunity,? Have any laws been introduced in New Jersey specifically?
So New Jersey's criminal justice community has zeroed in on qualified immunity as one of the main things that they're trying to get reformed. And yes, there have been several bills that have been introduced in the New Jersey Legislature on this, for years. They've never gained any traction. It depends on who you talk to, whether there's any hope that they'll actually move. But it is something that quite a few reform-minded groups really agree about, that qualified immunity is something that needs to be removed or restricted in order for anyone who has their civil rights violated by law enforcement to have any hope of remedy.
So essentially what I hear you saying is that nothing much has really happened in the state of New Jersey, in terms of getting rid of qualified immunity. We have this case that's now presumably winding its way through the court. What does that mean for Saint-Jean and also other cases like his in New Jersey?
So often when the legislators fail to act, that's where the courts come in. There was a somewhat of a recent victory for Saint-Jean in this case. The judge refused dismissed an appeal of these officers [that had been seeking to dismiss the complaint]. But it wasn't a huge victory, because he made that decision based on jurisdictional grounds, but it still allows Saint-Jean's case to proceed.
And the whole reason they were appealing was because there was a 2019 ruling by a federal judge in which he rejected these officers' qualified immunity claim, which was great for Saint-Jean.
So essentially, more to come.