Friday, June 18, 2010

Police misconduct case is reinstated for trial

Many, many false arrest cases are dismissed because the police have probable cause to take the plaintiff into custody. If it's a close call, the officer gets qualified immunity because the arrest was objectively reasonable at the time, even if in hindsight the arrest was a bad idea. Some of these cases, actually survive a motion to dismiss, though.

The case is Williams v. Wood, a summary order decided on April 29. Williams was driving around in a car with someone else when the car stopped in front of a group of people by a house where drugs and a gun was recently found. Williams got out of the car and briefly spoke to these loiterers and then got back into the car. Does this sequence give the police arguable probable cause to arrest Williams?

As the record now stands, the answer is no, and the district court should not have dismissed the case on summary judgment. The arresting officer did not know that Williams actually spoke to the people hanging around the house; he only saw Williams "get into a vehicle in the vicinity of a house where drugs and a shotgun had been found thirteen days earlier." In fact, a case from 2005 has even "worse" factual allegations than this case and that case was not worthy of dismissal, either. That case, U.S. v. Swindle, 407 F.3d 562 (2d Cir. 2005), involved a man who drove up to a known drug house, entered the house, left a short time later and drove away. That sequence of events did not give rise to probable cause. If the Swindle case was not enough, then it's not enough here.

The Court of Appeals (Leval, Katzmann and Parker) also reinstates Williams' excessive force claim. The arresting officer says that Williams mouthed off to him and would not make his right hand visible, justifying the use of force. Williams denies it all. In addition, even if the use of force did not injure Williams, he can still proceed with that claim.

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