Thursday, April 24, 2014

He ain't heavy, he's my brother

In this false arrest case against the City of Long Beach, N.Y., the trial court credited the defendants' story on the summary judgment motion, dismissing the case because the police officers in this case of mistaken identity thought the arrestee looked like someone else.

The case is Parker v. City of Long Beach, a summary order decided on April 18. The plaintiff, Jesse Parker, was arrested. The police were actually looking for his brother, Antonio Webb, who was a primary suspect in an armed robbery investigation. The trial court granted the police officers' motion for summary judgment, finding that there was nothing for the jury to resolve. But, the Court of Appeals says, the district court got it wrong in "improperly crediting defendants' version of disputed facts regarding whether the brothers bore a significant resemblance to each other. Specifically, the district court relied, in part, on defendants' claim that Parker and Webb share 'extremely similar facial features' and 'very similar, thin builds.' This characterization comes directly from the affidavits of several of the defendant officers." In fact, in opposition to the summary judgment motion, Parker said that he and Webb "are physically similar only in their 'race/color as African Americans.'"

The record in this case does not contain clear evidence of what the brothers look like. So the district court had to accept the plaintiff's testimony about their physical appearance. It is not enough for the police to argue that "they all look alike." The jury will have to decide if their resemblance is close enough to allow the police to argue that they arrested the plaintiff in good faith, even if their decision in hindsight was wrong.

But here is where the case gets tricky. Parker also says the police subjected him to excessive force. One officer slammed him to the floor and another officer choked him for three seconds. Again, remember that Parker was the wrong guy in this arrest. But Parker ran away and the police heard a radio transmission that Parker was Webb. So the police held the reasonable belief that they were chasing the right guy, who was an armed robbery suspect. The Court of Appeals (Cabranes, Sack and Wesley) says that, under the circumstances, since reasonable officers could disagree about whether to use force against Parker, the officers are entitled to qualified immunity. Parker was the wrong guy at the wrong place at the wrong time.

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