Heart-shaped candy led to man’s drug arrest, New Jersey suit says. He’s suing police

After bags of heart-shaped Valentine’s Day candy found inside a man’s car led to his arrest on a drug charge, he decided to sue police in New Jersey, according to a federal lawsuit.

Fernando Saint-Jean, of Massachusetts, says he was “falsely charged” with possession of MDMA/ecstasy after officers found the candy inside his car during a traffic stop in New Jersey, court documents state.

However, lab test results proved that the pastel-colored candy, commonly found in stores around Valentine’s Day, did not contain illegal substances more than two months after Palisades Interstate Parkway Police officers arrested Saint-Jean in May 2018, court documents state.

As a result, Saint-Jean filed a false arrest lawsuit against officers and the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police department in 2019, but it was put on pause until an appeals court resolved the defendants’ appeal, according to court records.

After a federal court in New Jersey rejected the officers’ request for qualified immunity — which can protect government officials facing lawsuits — the officers filed a notice of an appeal to challenge the district court’s decision. The case subsequently rose to an appeals court.

Now, Saint-Jean’s federal lawsuit can continue after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded it does not have “jurisdiction over the officers’ appeal” challenging the rejection of the request for qualified immunity, a written opinion from Sept. 23 states.

McClatchy News contacted attorneys representing the defendants and the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police department for comment on Oct. 3 and was awaiting a response.

Origins of the case

On May 6, 2018, Saint-Jean was driving home to Massachusetts, with his uncle as a passenger, after attending a family birthday celebration in Elizabeth, New Jersey, according to an amended complaint.

While driving along the Palisades Interstate Parkway and abiding by the speed limit, Saint-Jean was pulled over by a police officer “without legal justification,” the amended complaint states. Saint-Jean’s lawsuit argues he was pulled over for no reason other than his race as a Black man.

While speaking with the officer, Saint-Jean said he is originally from Haiti but is a U.S. citizen living in Massachusetts, as corroborated by his state license plates and driver’s license, according to the amended complaint. The officer told Saint-Jean he was pulled over for driving too slow and for having tinted windows.

After other Palisades Interstate Parkway police officers arrived at the scene, they told Saint-Jean and his uncle to step outside of the vehicle before patting down Saint-Jean and searching his car without “legal basis,” the complaint states.

Inside the car, they found bags of Valentine’s Day sugar candies that Saint-Jean’s co-worker had previously given him, according to the complaint. The candies had written words on them such as “call me,” “laugh” and “true love.”

Saint-Jean offered to provide police with his co-worker’s contact information to verify it was candy, but they refused and arrested him for possession of a controlled substance and a traffic infraction for having tinted windows, the complaint states.

“The intake process at the police station included photographing and fingerprinting Saint-Jean; it did not involve administering any tests on the small, heart-shaped objects,” the appeals court wrote in its opinion, adding that the prosecution of Saint-Jean ensued.

On July 27, 2018, a drug analysis conducted by state police confirmed that the candies were not illegal drugs, according to the amended complaint.

“After the heart-shaped objects were lab tested over two months later, the truth came out: they were just candies,” the appeals court’s opinion states. “Even with that knowledge, it still took nearly four additional months to drop the charges against the driver.”

Saint-Jean filed an initial complaint, alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution, against the officers in April 2019 before his amended complaint was filed in January 2021, court records show.

Officers sought to dismiss the complaint by raising qualified immunity defenses, but the District Court of New Jersey rejected their requests for qualified immunity, according to the appeals court’s written opinion.

“Specifically, qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right,” according to Cornell Law School.

Saint-Jean’s lawsuit argues that the officers violated his Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights in connection with the alleged false arrest and malicious prosecution.

“The officers filed a notice of appeal to challenge the District Court’s denial of qualified immunity under federal and New Jersey law. But before the officers appealed, the driver had amended his complaint,” the court wrote. “Due to that prior amendment, the District Court’s order was not final when the officers appealed.”

As a result, the officers’ appeal was reviewed by the appeals court, which dismissed it, according to the opinion.

In filing the lawsuit, Saint-Jean is seeking at least $60 million as relief for damages and attorney fees, the complaint states.

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