Monday, June 6, 2016

False arrest verdict thrown out the window

This police misconduct case raises a smorgasbord of legal issues. Particularly intriguing is that the Court of Appeals agrees that the jury had no basis to rule in plaintiff's favor, which means the verdict is gone for good even though plaintiff was a sympathetic victim. But the law does not always care about sympathetic victims if the defendants are able to show they deserved to win anyway.

The case is Figueroa v. Mazza, decided on June 3. The facts are complex, but here's a thumbnail. Someone called Duane Reade's photography processing department begging that the pharmacy throw away and not develop certain pictures that someone dropped off. A Duane Reade employee looked at the pictures, which depicted a young naked boy in distress, with close-ups of his private parts. That employee called the police, who thought these photos might be evidence of a kidnapping or sex trafficking. Turns out, the initial phone call to destroy the pictures was made by someone, Saenz, whose complaints about child abuse had in fact been ignored by the police. Saenz took the date-stamped pictures of the unharmed boy as evidence in case her son's father had abused him later on. Figueroa had filed the complaint against the police on Saenz's behalf. Despite this evidence suggesting that no one had committed any crime, the police still investigated the case as a potential kidnapping, interviewing Saenz's mother, who said the child in the picture was her grandson and that Saenz had joined a cult with Figueroa, who had injured Saenz's daughter while exorcising demons from her. The police eventually found Figueroa, but he would not cooperate with the investigation into the alleged kidnapping, maintaining his innocence. The police arrested him and he claims an officer face-punched him in the police car for no good reason. In the end, nothing bad had happened to the child, and the charge against Figueroa -- endangering the welfare of a child -- was dropped.

At trial, the jury found in Figueroa's favor on his false arrest and excessive force claims against various defendants. Total amount of the verdict: $574,000. That verdict is gone. And that brings me to a favorite theme of mine: some injustices will simply go unremedied. The police enjoy certain legal protections that the rest of us do not. Even if they make incorrect choices and take someone into custody improperly, that does not mean the victim will win money in court. As the courts see it, the police cannot do their jobs if they are going to worry that every error made in 20/20 hindsight becomes a lawsuit. We call this qualified immunity. When you consider that the legal standard for false arrest -- probable cause -- itself gives the police much leeway (probable cause carries a much lower burden of proof than reasonable doubt), that leeway is expanded through qualified immunity, which lets the police off the hook if they acted reasonably at the time, even if later events proved them wrong. We call it "arguable probable cause."

What this means in this case is that the police had reason to think plaintiff had not done anything wrong. But their investigation also gave them reason to think they had a real child abuse case on their hands, in substantial part because of the nude child photograph. The Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Walker and Kearse in dissent) says, "All in all, the photos of the child were so disturbing, and the circumstances so bizarre, that it cannot be said that no reasonable officer could have rejected Saenz’s explanation notwithstanding its arguable consistency with the known facts."

Out goes the verdict. The district court, which granted the officers' post-trial motions to vacate the verdict, must have felt lousy about all of this, opening his ruling with the following language:

Rejecting the verdict of a dedicated, intelligent, and assiduous cross section of the community—as this jury was—can only be justified on the strongest grounds. Here, the evidence stands stalwartly against a verdict in plaintiff's favor with respect to all his claims for false arrest, excessive force, and assault.

Plaintiff had an appealing background. He laid claim to a series of advanced degrees, among them in law and theology. He claimed to have lectured widely on theological and moral problems throughout the world. He testified to having earned the esteem of a coterie of wealthy individuals dedicated to philanthropy who, for decades, supported his efforts to disperse funds to persons he deemed "needy." That such a man was publicly humiliated by an arrest that occurred in his mother's home, leading to a public view of himself surrounded by more than a dozen police officers, might have offended the jury.

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