Thursday, August 20, 2015

Theft of services/false arrest case goes to trial

False arrest cases are hard to win. The police can detain you for any reason so long as they have probable cause. Probable cause is not hard to establish. If the police have any objective basis to think you are violating any law, then the police have probable cause, and your lawsuit goes nowhere. This lawsuit goes somewhere.

The case is Simpson v. City of New York, decided on July 15. Simpson was about to board a city bus when the driver closed off the front entrance and made everyone enter through the rear door. Officer Nelson was on the scene and thought Simpson was cute, so he hit on her. She rebuffed his advances. He then charged her with theft of services, accusing her of trying to get on the bus without swiping her MetroCard. The district court granted the officer's motion for summary judgment. The Court of Appeals (Hall, Lynch and Carney) reverses, finding that Simpson has a case.

This case reminds us that, on a summary judgment motion filed by the defendant, we have to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. The district court failed to do that. It simply said the officer had probable cause to arrest plaintiff for theft of services because "'he saw [Ms. Simpson] board a bus through the rear doors, which were marked ‘no entry,’ without paying the fare,' concluding that this undisputed fact was 'sufficient to provide [Officer] Nelson with the belief that plaintiff intended to obtain bus
service without payment of the lawful charge.'” But there was more to the story, at least from plaintiff's perspective, which the district court overlooked. The Court of Appeals says "there is a genuine issue for a jury as to whether a reasonable officer in Officer Nelson’s position could have had reasonable grounds to believe that she intended to commit, or was committing, theft of services." In particular:

First, Officer Nelson was aware of the problems with the mechanical lift which blocked the front entrance to the bus, given that he was only an “arm’s length” from Ms. Simpson while she waited to board the bus. Next, by the same token, Officer Nelson was in a position easily to hear the bus driver direct passengers to “Go around, go around” to the back of the bus and also to witness the bus driver open the back doors. In fact, viewing the facts as we must, Officer Nelson would have had to have been visually and aurally impaired to miss this chain of events. Finally, according to Ms. Simpson, Officer Nelson observed Ms. Simpson board the bus and wait in line to pay her fare before arresting her.
You know the old saying, "There are two sides to every story"? This case illustrates that. The officer said he saw plaintiff use the back door when the other passengers boarded through the front door, raising questions about whether the front door really was inaccessible. That may be, but since plaintiff has a different account, summary judgment is improper because if the jury credits her account, she wins the case.

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