Atlantic City Police Department Ordered to Turn Over Internal Affairs Files in Excessive Force Lawsuit

By: Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

In Groark v. Timek, 2013 U.S. Dist. Lexis 168716 (Nov. 27, 2013), the plaintiff sued Atlantic City and two of its officers (Timek and Wheaton) for allegedly beating him up without provocation and then filing false charges against him. He sued under the Fourth Amendment for claims of excessive force, false arrest, and malicious prosecution.

After learning that the two officers had about 78 prior similar complaints, none of which had been sustained by Atlantic City, the plaintiff sought their Internal Affairs (“IA”) files on each complaint. Magistrate Schneider of the District Court of New Jersey granted plaintiff’s motion, compelling that the files be produced.

Atlantic City had produced the Internal Affairs Index Cards, which provided only basic information as the nature of the complaint and the disposition of the charge. Of the 78 charges filed against these two officers, except one that was marked administratively closed, all were marked exonerated or not sustained.

Plaintiff claimed that it needed to review the complete files to determine if the IA investigation was a sham. Plaintiff argued that Atlantic City was deliberately indifferent to its police officers’ misconduct and it condoned the obvious consequences of its failure to properly train, supervise, and discipline its officers. Further, Plaintiff argued that he wanted to get to the bottom of why Timek and Wheaten repeatedly use excessive force with impunity.

Atlantic City opposed this motion, arguing that plaintiff should not be entitled to confidential files involving completely separate and irrelevant incidents and individuals. Also, Atlantic City argued that the requested documents were privileged and irrelevant.

The court considered whether the law enforcement privilege would apply. This privilege is designed to protect documents and information whose disclosure would seriously harm the operation of government. Here, the court found that the law enforcement privilege was outweighed by the public interest in disclosure of the requested IA files.

The court also found the records to be relevant to plaintiff’s claims and Atlantic City’s defense. They pertain to plaintiff’s claim that Atlantic City followed unconstitutional customs and that it failed to properly train its officers as to the use of force. It would be relevant to plaintiff’s argument that Atlantic City was deliberately indifferent to Timek and Wheaten’s violent propensities and Atlantic City’s IA unit is a sham.

Although Judge Schneider found that the IA files were discoverable, he agreed that they should be subject to a protective order, which would designate them as confidential. Personal information of Timek and Wheaten is irrelevant and must be redacted. Finally, the court noted that it was not ruling on the admissibility of the IA documents for trial. The ruling was limited to finding them discoverable and not privileged.