Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Circuit sustains large verdict in false arrest case

After the plaintiff was charged with assault and harassment in connection with an altercation with a retired NYC police officer, plaintiff sued the police over his false arrest, winning $225,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeals upholds the verdict.

The case is Walsh v. City of New York, a summary order issued on August 3. False arrest cases are hard to win, as the police enjoy immunity from suit unless they acted in violation of clearly-established law such that no competent officer would have made the arrest. Many false arrest claims never reach trial for that reason, as the probable cause defense is easy for the police to satisfy on a motion for summary judgment.

But not this case. The Second Circuit ruling does not provide details about what happened here, but the district court ruling on the post-trial motion says it all happened on New Year's Eve 2013, when plaintiff was working as a security guard at the Hilton Hotel near Times Square, gatekeeping people out of the hotel who wanted to get closer to Times Square. The off-duty officer, Vadala wanted to get into the hotel and attacked plaintiff, prompting plaintiff to punch Vadala in the face. Vadala resisted "violently." At the police station, plaintiff insisted on pressing charges against Vadala, and when he declined to drop the charges, hew as immediately arrested for assault.

Under normal circumstances, that behavior will land your rear-end in the slammer. But it is not illegal to hit someone if the contact is "privileged," a legal term of art that means there was some justification to do so. Somehow, plaintiff was legally able to hit the off-duty officer, and the arresting officers knew that plaintiff was privileged in doing so. But in this case, the trial court said that arresting plaintiff because he would not drop the charges against Vadala means he was not arrested in good faith. While bad faith arrests are not necessarily illegal under the Fourth Amendment, they are illegal if the police lacked probable cause to start with. Support for this obscure proposition is found in United States v. McDermott, 918 F .2d 319, 325 (2d Cir. 1990). In this case, the arresting officers "failed to consider facts reasonable available to them that were critical to the question of probable cause." What follows is the heart of the trial court's reasoning on this issue:

Roach and Clark [the arresting officers] knew that Walsh had voluntarily come to the precinct specifically to file a complaint against Vadala, and that Vadala had been brought to the precinct in handcuffs, having been arrested for assault. Vadala did claim that he had been assaulted by Walsh, but Roach and Clark knew that Walsh had been working as a security guard, that he was a peace officer, and that his use of force was privileged, made in reaction to Vadala's effort to force his way past Walsh into the Hilton. Significantly, Roach and Clark knew from the outset that Walsh had punched Vadala, but they made no effort to arrest him until he refused to drop his complaint against Vadala. Based on the evidence before it, the jury reasonably found that Roach and Walsh disregarded information known or reasonably available to them, and therefore lacked probable cause to arrest Walsh.

But there's always qualified immunity, right? That immunity is available to police officers who do not violate clearly-established law. We call it arguable probable cause. A lot of officers walk away from the lawsuits against them on this basis. Not these officers. In this case, the jury could have found the arresting officers withheld material information from the prosecutor, and also encouraged the off-duty officer to press charges against plaintiff even though knew the charges were bogus.

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