Monday, July 6, 2020

Court upholds false arrest/battery verdict

Post-trial appeals are interesting because the losing party still thinks he can somehow win the case. While he lost at trial despite his charismatic trial skills, he now thinks he can win the appeal on the basis of his intellectual chops. Here's the thing: once you lost at trial, even on appeal, the score is 7-2 in the ninth inning.

The case is Theodat v. City of New York, a summary order issued on July 1. This is a false arrest claim. The plaintiff won at trial, convincing the jury that the police had no probable cause to arrest him for a marijuana offense. He also won his battery claim against the officer. While the officer testified that he saw plaintiff smoke a joint and then drop it to the ground on a street corner, plaintiff testified that the police approached him on the street for no reason, twisted his arm behind his back, searched and arrested him and then charged him with smoking marijuana. Plaintiff says he was not in possession of any drugs that night. At the time, 2015, smoking even small amounts of marijuana in public was an arrestable offense; owing to racial disparities in marijuana arrests, that policy changed in 2018, when the Brooklyn District Attorney said he would no longer prosecute low-level marijuana offenses. That was too late for plaintiff. He got arrested.

The jury awarded plaintiff $100,000 in compensatory damages, and $200,000 in punitive damages, for false arrest against the main defendant, Crooms, who was also hit with $1,000 in compensatories and $7,500 in punitives on the battery. Another officer, McDonald, was found liable for failure to intervene to stop the false arrest, ordered to pay $150,000 in punitives.

On appeal, the officers argue that the trial court did not properly charge the jury. This is the best way to challenge an adverse verdict. You cannot really re-argue the facts on appeal. A jury instruction appeal raises a legal issue over which the trial court has no discretion. But there is such a thing as harmless error. Defendants argue that the jury should have been told that the arrest would have been justified if probable cause existed to make any arrest. It is true that probable cause does exist so long any objective basis exists to arrest someone, even if the plaintiff was charged with something else over which the police lacked probable cause. Defendants invoke that principle in claiming that, even there was no reason to arrest plaintiff for smoking marijuana in public, they had probable cause to arrest him for possessing marijuana. The Court of Appeals (Parker, Livingston and Park) disagrees. Any error by the trial court was harmless. This is because "the evidence [at trial] supporting probable cause for possession was . . . essentially identical to the evidence supporting a claim of probable cause as to smoking marijuana in pubic." No harm, no foul.

You might be wondering what happened to the damages awards. Losing defendants often challenge the amount of the verdict on appeal, but first they must do so through the trial court. That's what happened here. Judge Block ruled that the jury had a proper basis to award plaintiff $100,000 for pain and suffering arising from the false arrest and battery. Other court rulings have upheld awards in the amount of $98,500 to $252,000 in 2019 dollars for the loss of liberty from a false arrest, ranging from five to eight hours. Plaintiff was in custody for 2.5 hours, during which time an officer twisted his arm, causing serious pain. But Judge Block reduced the punitive damages awards to $15,000 and $5,000, down from $200,000 and $150,000. Other cases, like King v. Macri, 993 F.2d 294 (2d Cir. 1993), and DiSorbo v. Hoy, 343 F.3d 172 (2d Cir. 2003), awarded money in this high range, but they involved more serious physical injuries. Milfort v. Prevete, 3 F. Supp. 3d 14 (E.D.N.Y. 2014), awarded $5,500 in 2019 dollars for less serious injuries. The trial court said this case is more like Milfort, hence the sharp reduction in punitive damages.

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