Monday, July 26, 2010

Officer framed for murdering another officer recovers $1.5 million in damages

There are some police misconduct cases that make you wonder if the Court of Appeals is putting us on. Sure, false arrest and malicious prosecution cases surface from time to time, and juries sometimes overcome their natural biases in favor of the officers to award the victims money under the civil rights laws. But what would you say if I told you that a New York City detective was ordered to pay a fellow officer over a million dollars for maliciously prosecuting him for the murder of another police officer? If the Court of Appeals wanted to make up an outrageous case of official misconduct, it could not do any better than this case.

The case is Manganiello v. City of New York, decided on July 23. An officer, Acosta, was found murdered in a Bronx condominium. Detective Agostini was responsible for the investigation. Agostini must have hated his colleague, Manganiello, whom he blamed for the murder. If you are going to charge a NYC police officer with murdering a fellow officer, you'd better make sure you have the evidence. Agostini did not have the evidence, and the Court of Appeals (Kearse, Cabranes and Eaton [D.J.]) outlines how Agostini went about the investigation.

As Manganiello was near the scene of the murder, Agostini interrogated him and expressed frustration when Manganiello said he didn't do it. Agostini then had Manganiello strip-searched and placed in a cell. Although Manganiello gave Agostini leads as to local gang members who had threatened to shoot Acosta, Agostini did not follow up on this information and instead relied on the inherently questionable allegations of other gang members and thugs who fingered Manganiello in the shooting. Then, after Agostini completed his half-elbowed investigation, the case file on the Acosta murder disappeared. Agostini was responsible for maintaining this file, which may have contained exculpatory information clearing Manganiello, and he gave conflicting testimony about how the file was lost. A criminal court jury found Manganiello not guilty of murder. A federal jury then found Agostini liable for malicious prosecution, awarding Manganiello $1.5 million in damages, including punitives. The Second Circuit sustains the verdict, damages and all.

Malicious prosecution cases are hard to win. You have to show that the arresting officer initiated prosecution with malice. Not negligence, not mistake, but malice. Malice is the grand-daddy of the mens rea totem pole, difficult to prove but devastating when proven. You also have to show the officer had no probable cause to make the arrest. As Judge Kearse notes, the jury had ample basis to find that Agostini had engaged in police misconduct in the course of his myopic focus on Manganiello by, for example, relying on bogus information by unreliable "witnesses" and seemingly going out of his way to nail Manganiello the wall on this one. The Second Circuit sums it up as follows:

Looking at the evidence as a whole, the jury could permissibly infer that Agostini was determined simply to make a case against Manganiello, and that in order to do so Agostini refrained from making inquiry into other possible suspects, ignored evidence that was inconsistent with his belief that Manganiello was guilty, declined to inform the ADA of, or to document, any exculpatory evidence or inconsistencies in the statements of witnesses who agreed to inculpate Manganiello, secured one statement inculpating Manganiello by agreeing not to disclose the witness's known criminal activities to the proper authorities, and included in some of Agostini's own reports supposedly factual statements adverse to Manganiello that were contradicted by persons having first-hand knowledge of the facts.

Finally, the Second Circuit upholds the large damages award. Manganiello's career was thrown off kilter as a result of these charges and, although he had no prior psychiatric problems, Agostini's malicious prosecution caused him to suffer post-traumatic stress, major depression and a chemical imbalance that permanently disabled him. His past and future lost earnings amounted to approximately $1.2 million, and the pain and suffering award, in the amount of $116,600, is in line with comparable cases.

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