Tuesday, February 13, 2018

State law malicious prosecution against private citizen claim goes to trial

I often write about federal false arrest and malicious prosecution claims, many of which are dismissed on motions for summary judgment because the legal standards give the police the benefit of the doubt on threshold issues like probable cause. But in this case, the Court of Appeals revives a state law malicious prosecution claim brought against a private citizen. This case highlights the distinctions between federal false arrest claims and state law malicious prosecution claims.

The case is Shen v. City of New York, a summary order issued on February 9. As Shen and his wife left the federal courthouse one day, a photographer, Shapiro, was there covering Shen's court appearance. Shen made punching and kicking gestures but did not make contact with Shapiro, although Shen's arm became entangled in Shapiro's camera strap. An altercation ensued, but the parties dispute who started it. Shen and Shapiro were injured in the altercation. Shapiro then called the police and said that Shen had assaulted him. Shen was arrested and the charges were later dropped.

Chen claimed the police used excessive force against him during the arrest, but the Court of Appeals (Wesley, Parker and Droney) doesn't see it that way. "The undisputed facts thus show that the officers responded to an incident of reported violence by handcuffing Shen, the suspected aggressor, using two sets of handcuffs to accommodate his shoulder injury and in a way that did not result in any further injury to Shen, for (as relevant here) only the brief period of time that it took to place Shen in an ambulance to be transported immediately to a hospital for treatment of his injuries. In these circumstances, the district court correctly concluded that no reasonable juror could find that the officers’ conduct was objectively unreasonable. Shen’s excessive force claim therefore fails as a matter of law."

Moving on the federal malicious prosecution claim, Shen can't sue the police because they were able to rely on Shapiro's account of the fight instead of Shen's account. Section 1983 caselaw allows the police to credit the account of the putative crime victim unless the police have reason to believe they have no credibility. The Court notes that "we have found probable cause where a police officer was presented with different stories from an alleged victim and the arrestee." So the police are off the hook.

But Shapiro is not off the hook on the state law malicious prosecution claim. "In the context of a malicious prosecution claim under New York state law, a plaintiff can defeat a showing of probable cause “by evidence establishing that the police witnesses have not made a complete and full statement of facts . . . to the District Attorney, that they have misrepresented or falsified evidence, that they have withheld evidence[,] or otherwise acted in bad faith.” This exception to the finding of probable cause applies when a private citizen provides false information to the police. Here, since two disinterested witnesses claim that Shapiro and not Shen was the aggressor, and since Shen himself claims he was innocent, "these facts place the veracity of Shapiro's account into substantial question, and prevent summary judgment as to whether there was probable cause for the malicious prosecution claim against Shapiro."

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