Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Arguable probable cause" dooms false arrest case

I used to have cases before a federal judge who said it was a "ticket to federal court" when a criminal defendant was acquitted in state court (or the charges were dropped). This meant that if the police arrested someone but the charges didn't stick, the defendant could turn around and sue the police. Well, he can sue the police, but that doesn't mean he'll win the case. Quite often, these false arrest cases do not survive summary judgment.

The case is Droz v. McCadden, decided on September 14. Droz was arrested for criminal contempt when he acted out in Town court (he would not let the court officer see what was in his brown paper bag). The Town Judge, Shirley Herder, summoned the police, who arrested Droz. That officer was McCadden. The charge was eventually dismissed. Droz gets a ticket to federal court.

That Droz gets to sue McCadden doesn't mean he wins the case. There is no false arrest if the police have probable cause to arrest. Probable cause can exist even if the charges are dropped or a jury acquits the defendant. This is because the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for conviction is much higher than the probable cause standard.

McCadden finds a more obscure way to win the case. The parties agreed that McCadden reasonably believed that he was acting at Town Judge Herder's behest in arresting Droz. In fact, Droz's lawyer actually admitted that "McCadden ... relied upon his alleged understanding of Herder's direction to him to arrest Droz for criminal contempt." The Court of Appeals (Sack, Winter and Cogan) is a little flummoxed at counsel's weasly language about McCadden's "alleged understanding," but it's close enough to get the case dismissed. As the Second Circuit writes, "Droz concedes, then, that McCadden thought he was operating at the direction of Herder when he arrested Droz."

This belief was reasonable because Droz also "concedes that Herder agreed ... that Droz's actions should be reported to the police." So when McCadden arrested Droz for criminal contempt, his reliance on Herder's judgment gets him off the hook. This brings the case within the gray area known as "arguable probable cause," a defense to false arrest cases. Arguable probable cause is enough to win, and by its very terms this doctrine is more favorable to the police than mere probable cause. Under arguable probable cause, the case is dismissed if the officer "could have reasonably believed that probable cause existed in the light of well established law." On the facts of this case, McCadden has arguable probable cause, and Droz's ticket to the courthouse gets him nowhere.


Anonymous said...

Nothing new here.

Defendants always include probable cause as an affirmative defense in 1983 cases.

Rule: Plaintiffs should always plead facts which militate against a finding of probable cause, and they should not be so quick, as here, to concede it!

I find that 1983 defendants are reluctant to put their probable cause defenses to the test when there are facts, however weak, which point in the other direction.

kip said...

Well, I was born blond with blue eyes. German/Irish family got here in 1938 and I was arrested as a light skinned black man named Gonzalez. A drug informant had been stealing "buy funds" from the Drug Task Force and I got caught up in the mess. When all was said and done, and my public lawyer quit because he couldn't get me to "just plead guilty" and they'll let you go; my release came when I challenged the inprisonment in Federal Court...the Feds didn't have to rule. The State dismissed all charges. After 330 days locked up, I hope to find compensation

Anonymous said...

I've been scouring the web for an answer to my question about false arrest and probable cause, but can't find an answer because all the info I've seen is about warrantless arrests. Here's the situation (state of MS): an officer with the county sheriff's department provides false information that results in a warrant, and subject is arrested by the town police. Defendant has proof that information provided was false and will plead not guilty. Provided he wins, can any of them be sued for false arrest?

Genecks said...

This statement that you wrote is not true: "This is because the 'beyond a reasonable doubt' standard for conviction is much higher than the probable cause standard."

Can you prove that? No, no you cannot prove that. That is because to have probable cause, a person must have totality of the facts and the circumstances.

The reason you do not understand is because you do not understand the reasonable person concept, which is a legal concept that you must understand in order to be able to perceive law. Otherwise, you're delusional or engaging in sophistry.

Probable cause = x + y
x = totality of facts
y = totality of circumstances

But an officer nor peace officer can never have totality of the facts nor circumstances, because that's not humanly possible. The State prosecutor tends to make the part for the whole fallacy, whereby it's argued that a peace officer can be God incarnate -or- have the ability to encompass the universe's facts and circumstances all at once.

What tends to be said in case law is a referral to what is called "a reasonable peace officer," which is actually a garbage State prosecutor argument that pushes the thesis that a peace officer can somehow manifest God incarnate, become the mythical reasonable person, and have "totality" of the facts and circumstances.

The standards are all the same. I'm surprised you've studied law for so long and not have realized this. Preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt... these are all the same thing. Who in their right mind would attempt to ever argue that you could mathematically describe them differently?

You're either a fool or a fraud.