Appeals court reinstates Carteret police retaliation, unlawful arrest lawsuit

A state appellate court has reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a "self-described advocate against police brutality and corruption" that accused the Carteret Police Department of retaliating against him for exercising his freedom of speech.

The court reversed the dismissal of Jamaal Merritt Jr's claims of retaliation and unlawful arrest and remanded the case to Middlesex County Superior Court while also reversing the granting of judicial immunity to Police Officer John Kelly.

"The order dismissing Merritt’s malicious prosecution; manufacturing false evidence; failure to train, supervise, or discipline; and civil conspiracy claims with prejudice is vacated with instructions that the court permit Merritt an opportunity to amend his complaint," the ruling says.

In a statement, the borough said it "strongly believes the court’s decision is the wrong one," and is still reviewing it.

The borough also called the decision "largely technical in nature" and reiterated that Carteret "will vigorously defend itself and the police officer involved against the false and meritless allegations being made here."

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According to the ruling Merritt is well known in the community for filming encounters between police and citizens.

In November 2017 Merritt recorded an incident on his cellphone between Kelly and a man the officer was trying to arrest.

To prevent the man from swallowing what was believed to be a controlled dangerous substance, Kelly and another officer escorted the man to the ground where the other officer applied pepper spray on the man's face, court papers say.

When the man began to scream, Merritt yelled for the officers to call an ambulance because Merritt had previously been pepper sprayed by Carteret police. When the police failed to call for medical assistance, Merritt tried to call for an ambulance on his cellphone, but the battery had died, according to court papers.

Merritt claims he then crossed the street to try to call for an ambulance from a pay phone, but Kelly claimed Merritt approached the officers and caused a scene which attracted more onlookers and distracted the officers from making the arrest, according to court papers.

Merritt maintains police body camera video and dash cam video shows he never approached the officers or physically interfered with the arrest, but the video was never presented in municipal court, court papers say.

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Merritt was arrested and charged with obstruction by another officer, but the case was in municipal court for two years before being dismissed for failure to prosecute in a timely manner.

Merritt filed a New Jersey Civil Rights Act complaint against Carteret police which was amended after the dismissal of the municipal court charge.

He alleged retaliation for exercising his right to free speech by arresting him for obstruction, unlawful arrest, malicious prosecution, fabricated evidence and other claims.

His complaint was dismissed in January 2021 after the court found Merritt failed to satisfy the Tort Claims Act notice requirement, the court was bound by the municipal court's finding of probable cause and Kelly was entitled to qualified immunity.

The court denied Merritt's motion for reconsideration and the appeal followed.


Suzanne Russell is a breaking news reporter for covering crime, courts and other mayhem. To get unlimited access, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

This article originally appeared on NJ court reinstates Carteret police retaliation, unlawful arrest suit