Thursday, May 30, 2013

A ticket to the courthouse gets the plaintiff no money

A federal judge in White Plains used to say that a criminal court acquittal (or dropped charges) gave you a ticket to the federal courthouse. He was technically right. You could then argue that you were falsely arrested. But many of these false arrest cases are killed off on a motion for summary judgment. This case is one of them.

The case is Norwood v. Mason, a summary order decided on May 14. Two guys broke into the Driscoll home in the City of Troy. The Driscolls both told the police that the robbers were Hispanic, one short and slender, the other taller and heavier with a goatee. The Driscolls also identified Norwood as the taller robber. Norwood is African-American, not Hispanic. In getting the arrest warrant for Norwood, Mason (a police officer) did not mention that the Driscolls said that the robbers were Hispanic. A grand jury indicted Norwood, but that indictment got chucked because of bad jury instructions. Someone else was eventually arrested in connection with the robbery, and Norwood got his ticket the courthouse.

Not every injustice gets you a jury trial, or money damages. Norwood argued that Mason had no probable cause because his arrest warrant affidavit did not mention that the Driscolls said he was Hispanic. But the Second Circuit (Winter, Calabresi and Lynch) says that is not enough to say that Mason lacked probable cause. "While a prudent magistrate with access to both sets of depositions could have had doubts about the accuracy of this identification, we cannot say that such doubts would have been sufficient to negate probable cause," especially since courts hold that a photo identification provides probable cause to arrest that person, "even where the identification may not be 100 percent reliable."

The photo identification was not bad, the Court says. Several individuals in the array looked like Norwood, and nothing about Norwood stood out from the others. Mason did not even compile the photo array. And other than his ethnicity, "Norwood's appearance approximates the Driscolls' description of the taller robber in every other significant way, including height, age, weight, and facial hair." So, while this case is a real bummer for Norwood, who was dragged through the hell-hole and back on a criminal charge that lacked merit, he cannot sue the police officer for false arrest.

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