Wednesday, June 13, 2018

False arrest case should go to the jury

Many false arrests are dismissed before they reach the jury -- even before trial -- because the trial court finds the police had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff. That's what happened here. But the Court of Appeals reinstates the case and says the jury could find for the plaintiff. This is a rare pro-plaintiff false arrest ruling from the Second Circuit.

The case is Tuccillo v. Nassau County, a summary order issued on May 25. For plaintiffs, the problem with false arrest cases is that we apply an objective standard in determining if the police had probable cause to arrest. Probable cause is itself a deferential legal standard for the police to satisfy. Even people who are acquitted at their criminal trials may have difficulty proving the police lacked probable cause to arrest them. Another way for plaintiffs to lose is that courts will find probable cause existed if the police conceivably had any legitimate basis to detain the plaintiff, even if they charged plaintiff with an offense that lacked any factual basis. So that if the police arrest you for resisting arrest without any basis, but another officer could have arrested you for disorderly conduct, then there is no false arrest claim because there was an objective basis to detain the plaintiff no matter what the police charged you with.

In this case, the parties went to trial, but the trial court dismissed the case before it went to the jury, ruling that no reasonably jury could find the police lacked probable cause to arrest the plaintiff. The case arises from a road rage incident on Long Island. The Second Circuit (Pooler, Lohier and Sullivan [D.J.]) ruling does not tell us what plaintiff was charged with. The trial court said in issuing its ruling that plaintiff and and one of his witnesses were "liars," and it accepted the testimony of the police officers who arrested plaintiff. But this is a classic credibility determination for the jury, not the trial court. Really, it's hard to believe the trial court would grant the defendants judgment as a matter of law mid-trial on the basis that the plaintiff was a liar.

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