(CN) - A New Jersey man can pursue claims that police pepper-sprayed him and knocked him unconscious when he was assessing fire damage to his car, a federal judge ruled.
The complaint alleges that Jason Rios called 911 to report that his car was on fire behind his home in Bayonne, N.J., on Aug. 29, 2010.
After firefighters extinguished the flames, Rios allegedly walked over to assess the damage. A firefighter then told Rios not to touch the smoldering vehicle and made an "insensitive remark," the complaint states.
The admittedly "upset" Rios responded and walked away, without touching the car, when police Sgt. Franco Amato and officers James Mahoney, Joseph Saroshinsky, and Roman Popowski approached him from behind, according to the complaint.
The officers then allegedly pepper-sprayed Rios in the back of his head and his face, handcuffed him, flushed his eyes with water from a nearby hose, and patted him down.
Mahoney, in turn, threw Rios face-first to the concrete and, together with the other officers, beat him unconscious, according to the complaint.
To hide the scene from a gathering crowd of onlookers, the police and firefighters allegedly moved their cruiser and fire engine.
Rios said he was taken to the hospital, and that Mahoney and Saroshinsky later wrote a false police report claiming that he had resisted arrest and obstructed an arson investigation.
The county prosecutor's office downgraded the charges to disorderly persons offenses the next day, and the municipal prosecutor later said the matter would be adjourned, Rios claimed.
He sued Bayonne, its police department, several officers, and 10 anonymous defendants last year for false arrest and imprisonment, illegal search and seizure, and excessive force under federal and state law, plus municipal liability under Section 1983.
Defendant Lt. Robert Deczynski, who allegedly approved the false report, and the arresting officers and Police Chief Robert Kubert separately moved to dismiss.
U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty partially denied the motions Tuesday, finding that Rios' allegations that the officers acted "without cause or provocation" go beyond mere "labels and conclusions" that probable cause was lacking.
Rios also sufficiently asserted Amato's personal involvement, the ruling states.
"The complaint alleges that Sgt. Amato witnessed the unconstitutional arrest, search and seizure, and assault of Rios," McNulty wrote. "Following the assault, Amato allegedly instructed Saroshinsky to move the police cruiser so as to block potential witnesses from seeing Rios's plight. Amato was allegedly present during the alleged violations; moreover, as the supervising officer, he would have had the opportunity to intervene. This goes beyond respondeat superior or vicarious liability."
While the arresting officers are not immune from suit, because Lt. Deczynski and Chief Kubert were not personally involved, they cannot be held liable for the incident, the ruling states.
"The complaint does not state, even in conclusory terms, that Chief Kubert directed the officers who arrested, searched, and assaulted him, or even that Kubert had actual knowledge of those events," McNulty wrote.
Rios also failed to support his "blanket recitation that Bayonne acted pursuant to an official policy or custom and practice" under Section 1983, though the claim for municipal liability under the New Jersey Constitution survived.
Although Rios' state case remains open, proceedings have thus far not been rescheduled, according to the ruling.
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