Friday, March 11, 2011

Freed from jail on appeal, but no false arrest case

Many false arrest cases fail. It's just a fact, even if the plaintiff was wrongly convicted and released from jail. That's what happened in this case.

The case is Hargroves v. City of New York, a summary order decided on February 22. It all started when a group of black males beat up and robbed a Chinese food delivery man, who told the police that he would could identify the attackers and that one of them wore an orange jacket. The police then found a group of black males walking along the street, and after detaining them, they had the delivery guy identify them from the police car, no easy task since his face was beaten up, his eyes were bloody and swollen and his glasses were broken. A jury convicted them of gang assault. A state appellate court reversed the convictions because that the police had no reasonable suspicion to detain them on the street, in part because the black "gang" was walking toward the scene of assault, they did not run away when the police approached them, and one of the defendants had a red and blue (and not orange) jacket. After these guys were released from prison, they sued the police for false arrest.

The Eastern District of New York denied summary judgment on the false arrest and malicious prosecution claim, but the case is immediately appealed on qualified immunity grounds. And that is where many false arrest cases die. The police get the benefit of the doubt in tough cases, even if in hindsight they did the plaintiffs wrong. If a reasonable police officer would have detained these guys, they get actual immunity from suit. This happens all the time, but you rarely see qualified immunity applied where the plaintiffs actually went to jail for a crime they did not commit.

How do the police get off in this case? The Second Circuit (Cabranes, Chin and Keenan [D.J.]), says the delivery guy assured the police he could identify his attackers. The Court reasons, "We cannot say that the physical infirmities alleged by plaintiffs -- the swollen face, a burst blood vessel in one eye, and damaged glasses -- necessarily precluded a reasonable officer from accepting Wu's assurances that he had reliably identified his attackers. Importantly, there is no evidence in the record that Wu's conduct prior to and during the show-up suggested any traces of blurred vision, or that his facial injuries required urgent medical care."

The other claims fall for similar reasons. Plaintiffs argue that the initial detention was simply racial profiling and that no one wore an orange jacket, but the Second Circuit says that a reasonable officer at night might have mistaken the red and blue jacket for an orange one since it contained reflective, light red inner lining. As "it was not unreasonable for the officers to think that plaintiffs matched the description provided by Wu" and "one member of the group was wearing a bright jacket of some kind that could reasonably -- if, albeit mistakenly -- be perceived as being a shade of orange," the police reasonably detained this large group of males near the crime scene.

So there you have it, folks. These guys actually go to jail and win their criminal appeals, and there are some factual disagreements about what happened on the night they were arrested, but they have no false arrest case because the police had arguable probable cause. This is how the courts resolve many false arrest cases, and for the Second Circuit this is not a remarkable ruling, which is why they issued it as a non-precedential summary order.

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