Monday, July 8, 2013

2d Cir. upholds $190,000 false arrest verdict

This guy sued the police for false arrest and malicious prosecution. The jury agreed with him and awarded him $190,000. The City of New York appeals the verdict, but the Court of Appeals affirms, and the plaintiffs get their money.

The case is Marshall v. Randall, decided on June 12. When people lose at trial, the often vow to appeal. It may look good in the newspaper to say that, but most trial verdicts are upheld on appeal. There are reasons for this. First, appellate courts will not second-guess the jury's credibility or factual determinations. Second, trial courts are given the benefit of the doubt on evidentiary rulings.

In this case, the plaintiff was arrested for possessing a loaded firearm when the police said he threw a gun onto the street in their presence. The grand jury indicted him but the charges were dismissed on speedy trial grounds. The jury agreed with Marshall that the police lied when they accused him of throwing the gun. His trial strategy was to highlight the inconsistencies in the officers' accounts of what happened. One way to do that was by cross-examining them through their grand jury testimony.

One issue on appeal invokes the general rule is that you cannot be sued over your grand jury testimony, lest witnesses pull punches during that critical phase of the criminal process. At trial, Marshall used that grand jury testimony against the officers as impeachment material, to show that the officers had given inconsistent accounts throughout the case. The trial judge allowed the plaintiff to do this. The Court of Appeals (Lynch, Walker and Carney) says that district judge Jack Weinstein (one of the true experts on trial evidence and procedure, by the way) did not abuse his discretion in handling this issue at trial. This is a close call, the Second Circuit says, but the Court of Appeals is satisfied that the jury did not find the police officers guilty based on the substance of their grand jury testimony. Based on the trial court's instructions, the jury most likely found against the officers based on the impeachment value of the grand jury testimony. It's a fine line, but, as I said, it is very difficult to overturn a jury award based on the trial court's discretionary rulings on evidence.

The City raised another issue: in order to win a malicious prosecution case, the plaintiff has to show that the charges were meritless and terminated in his favor. It is settled law that the charges settle in your favor when they are dismissed on speedy trial grounds. The police officers wanted to know that that's what happened to the plaintiff's criminal charges. I guess their strategy was to show that this was some kind of technicality and did not really speak to the strength of the case against him in criminal court. But the trial court did not abuse his discretion in not allowing the jury to know that the case was dismissed on speedy trial grounds.

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