Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Leave well enough alone

The Court of Appeals can be full of surprises. In this case, the Court of Appeals takes the initiative to throw out a jury verdict in a false arrest claim on the basis of arguments that the municipality apparently never made.

The case is Caceres v. Port Authority, decided on January 31, 2011. Arrested on a warrant meant for someone else, Caceres sued Port Authority for false arrest. He sued under Section 1983 for the constitutional violation and also under state law. Cacares won at trial. The jury awarded Caceres $10,000 against both Port Authority and the arresting officer, but the trial court took away the verdict on the federal claim against the arresting officer, granting him qualified immunity. This leaves Caceres with a $10,000 judgment against Port Authority on the state law claim. The Court of Appeals is not sure why Cacares is even appealing the trial court's qualified immunity ruling, since Port Authority had no intention of appealing the $10,000 verdict. As Judge Jacobs writes, "for some reason, Caceres (not content with a damages award that was fully recoverable from the Port Authority) appealed the qualified immunity ruling; the Port Authority, which had been content to pay the judgment, then cross-appealed on the ground that absent liability of any of its officers, vicarious liability does not lie."

Caceres comes away with nothing. First, the Court of Appeals finds that the arresting officer deserves qualified immunity on the federal claim because, although Caceres may have been arrested on a case of mistaken identity, it was reasonable for the officer to make the arrest under the circumstances, including the fact that Caceres and the subject of the warrant were both racial minorities. Although Caceres is a light-skinned Hispanic and the other guy was "a black man of dark complexion," the Court of Appeals concludes that "complexion varies within a given race classification, and the descriptive terms in the warrant reflected one person's subjective classification at one point in time. A Port Authority officer might reasonably assume that the skin color and race information were entered incorrectly -- particularly since height, weight, age, hair color and eye color were either accurate or within bounds." Also, these two individuals were each assigned the same New York State Identification Number, a designation given to arrestees (Caceres had been detained in the past) that is so unique that no reasonable officer would think it was incorrectly assigned to Caceres.

So the federal false arrest claim is gone. What about the state false arrest claim? If that is affirmed, Caceres still gets his $10,000. The problem here is that the claim was brought outside the limited statute of limitations governing false arrest claims. The Court of Appeals figures this out for itself; Port Authority apparently did not make this argument at any time in the case. Since this is a jurisdictional ground for dismissal, the Second Circuit can seize upon that issue for the first time. So the state false arrest verdict is gone, as well. The Court of Appeals saw this as a pointless appeal since plaintiff had an enforceable judgment against Port Authority. It throws out the whole case sua sponte. What the Court of Appeals is saying is that we should leave well enough alone.

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