Wednesday, July 9, 2014

17 year-old excessive force victim wins case against the police

This plaintiff convinced a jury that the police used excessive force in arresting him, awarding him $50,000 in damages. The City appeals, arguing that the verdict makes no sense because the jury also found that plaintiff struggled with the officer when he was punched and that the officer did not subject plaintiff to state-law assault. The Court of Appeals rejects these arguments and affirms the verdict.

The case is O'Hara v. City of New York, a summary order decided on June 18. Excessive force cases are hard to win. Jurors like the police. Face it, society has to like the police. We have to believe that the police are there to protect us. It takes a lot for the jury to rule against law enforcement.

The Court of Appeals (Raggi, Lynch and Lohier) says the verdict is consistent with the jury's findings that plaintiff struggled with the officer. As the City appeals from a verdict, the Court must accept plaintiff's side of the story, that "in effectuating O'Hara's arrest for a relatively minor matter, McAvoy -- who was one of six armed officers on the scene -- punched O'Hara in the face without provocation and then proceeded to punch him repeatedly after the 17 year old fell to the ground." That sounds like excessive force. The fact that the jury did not find the officer liable for assault does not change things. Assault involves the fear of harm, like when someone is coming at you with a knife or a fist. The Court says, "insofar as the alleged attack occurred without provocation, a jury could have reasonably found both that McAvoy intentionally or recklessly used excessive force against O'Hara, without also finding that O'Hara was placed in imminent fear of harm." 

The City also argues that since the jury found that O'Hara struggled with the police, the force had to be reasonable as a matter of law. True, these cases are harder to win when the plaintiff struggled with the police, since law enforcement is allowed to use force to effectuate an arrest. But this fact-specific inquiry is really a question for the jury. Plaintiff testified that he was struggling to avoid the officer's punches. Since the jury presumably credited that testimony, there is no inherent inconsistency in the verdict.

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