Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Another false arrest case bites the dust

The police arrested this guy because he was standing near police activity and ignored police directives to move away from the scene. He was arrested for obstructing governmental administration and later took an ACD, a probationary dismissal. Plaintiff next sued the police for false arrest. The Court of Appeals says there is no case.

The case is Basinski v. City of New York, a summary order decided on August 24. The Second Circuit is the place where false arrest claims go to die. It's not that people don't have a case. It's that qualified immunity draws the case into a gray area that allows the Court to hold that a reasonable police officer would have made the arrest under the circumstances, even if the arrest is found to be unlawful through the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

Plaintiff came upon a food vendor who had set up shop outside a police station, an unusual situation. Plaintiff waited for the police to exit the station to see what they would do upon seeing the vendor. As the police went about their business upon approaching the vendor, they told plaintiff to move away. Plaintiff moved away a few feet but the police asked him to move away even further. This back and forth went on for a few minutes, as plaintiff told the police he was not doing anything wrong. All the while, the police had directed other passersby to move away as well. The police eventually arrested plaintiff for obstructing governmental administration, which prohibits people from obstructing police activity by means of intimidation, physical force or interference. Was there probable cause to nail plaintiff for this? And was it objectively reasonable for the police to think there was probable cause? That's what qualified immunity is all about.

The Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Livingston and Daniels [D.J.]) notes that New York courts have interpreted the "physical interference" element of the obstructing law broadly. You don't have to make physical contact with the police to obstruct.

Here, a reasonable officer could conclude that Basinski engaged in disruptive conduct at the scene of the performance of an official function. Browne put Basinski on “specific, direct” notice multiple times, telling him that he was “standing in an area that [he was] not allowed to be standing in.” In addition, the police activity area was arguably “confined and defined.” For instance, when Browne asked another individual standing nearby to move, Basinski acknowledged that Browne wanted him to move to the same place where that individual moved. Basinski intentionally remained in the specific area of police activity despite Browne’s repeated requests for him to move away, as Kass did before his arrest. Finally, Basinski verbally interjected and reengaged with Browne once Browne had turned his back to Basinski and was speaking to other individuals.
To the uninitiated, plaintiff was not doing anything wrong. The police told him to move away, but there is no indication that he was actually interfering with the police officer's job. It appears the police needed some space to interact with the food vendor. In ordering plaintiff to move away, the police created the opportunity for plaintiff to "obstruct" in refusing to do so and in moving away just a bit. It may be that, had the police proceeded with the criminal case against plaintiff, no jury would have convicted plaintiff for obstructing. But that's not the issue in this civil case. The Court of Appeals holds the the police could have reasonably thought plaintiff was obstructing governmental administration, and that is enough to make the case disappear.

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