In McMullen v. Maple Shade Township, ___ F.3d ___ (3d Cir. 2011), the plaintiff was arrested in Maple Shade Township for violating the township’s public intoxication ordinance.  Although admitting that he was intoxicated, the plaintiff denied that he was disorderly.  At a hearing in municipal court, the plaintiff argued that Maple Shade’s ordinance was superseded or contrary to the New Jersey Alcoholism Treatment and Rehabilitation Act (“ATRA”).  ATRA provides in pertinent part that “[n]otwithstanding any other provision of law, no county, municipality, or other jurisdiction within the State shall adopt an ordinance, resolution, or other legislation creating an offense of public intoxication or any equivalent offense, and any existing ordinance, resolution, or other legislation creating such an offense is hereby repealed.”  The municipal judge agreed with the plaintiff and dismissed the charge. 

Following the dismissal, the plaintiff filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey.  He claimed that the township’s ordinance was invalid under ATRA and that his arrest and prosecution violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.  In addition, he asserted state law causes of action.  The District Court granted the Township’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, concluding that the plaintiff’s federal claims were, “at bottom[,]” state law claims.  After dismissing the federal claims, the court chose to not exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s state law claims.

The Third Circuit identified the issue it had to resolve as follows:  “whether an arrest made pursuant to an ordinance that may be invalid on state law grounds can give rise to a federal claim.”  While noting that the District Court held that it may not, the Third Circuit pointed out that the lower court had focused on whether there was a federal right to engage in the conduct at issue; i.e., public intoxication.  The Third Circuit disagreed with the District Court that the key issue was whether there was a right to be intoxicated in public; rather, it framed the issue as “whether there is a federally protected right to be free from arrest pursuant to a law alleged to be invalid on state law grounds.”

After observing that claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 redress violations of federal (not state or local) law, the Third Circuit recounted that some circuits had held that an arrest made under a statute that has been invalidated on federal constitutional grounds can give rise to a claim under the Fourth Amendment.  The Third Circuit then reviewed other federal caselaw that holds that in some circumstances an arrest pursuant to a law that is unambiguously invalid on only state law grounds may constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment that is actionable under § 1983.

However, the court ruled that the plaintiff “failed to state a viable Fourth Amendment claim because he cannot plead that the ordinance pursuant to which he was arrested is unambiguously invalid.”  The court explained that it was unclear whether ATRA preempted Maple Shade’s ordinance, and that the analysis of whether the ordinance was invalid was complicated by New Jersey’s Home Rule Act, which itself conflicted with ATRA.  Moreover, the court reasoned that although ATRA has been interpreted broadly by New Jersey municipal courts, no decision had ever conclusively resolved the issue presented in the instant case.  In conclusion, the Third Circuit found that “[b]ecause it is not the domain of federal courts to resolve undecided questions of state law, … we must reject [the plaintiff’s] invitation to serve as an arbiter of New Jersey law and leave that task to the New Jersey Supreme Court.”