Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Trial court is where the action is

When a party loses at trial, the first instinct is to consider an appeal. Surely the Court of Appeals will see that I got an unfair trial right? Maybe not. The appellate courts don't like to second-guess juries, even if the plaintiff had a good case. Trial judges also have discretion to make certain rulings at trial.

The case is Aponte v. Kanbur, a summary order issued on August 30. This is a police misconduct case, an issue that creates strong emotions on all sides. The plaintiff knows that many jurors sympathize with the police and may even have a relative in law enforcement. But we also know that attitudes have changed over time and that the public is more aware of police misconduct than ever before. 

Against that backdrop, this case went to trial. Plaintiff says the officer, upon arriving at this residence for a domestic violence issue, used "a martial arts lock choke hold" against him, slammed him against the wall and strangled him -- all without any provocation. The jury entered a verdict for the police officer.

It is not enough to claim on appeal that you had better and more logical witnesses than the other side. Jurors decide credibility, not the Court of Appeals. The best way to challenge an adverse verdict is to claim the trial court made evidentiary errors and issued a bad jury instruction. That's what Aponte does here. But the Court of Appeals (Parker, Lynch and Bianco) upholds the verdict.

One issue is whether the trial court should have allowed plaintiff to tell the jury that the officer was arrested for domestic violence in a separate incident against his wife. The charges from that arrest were dismissed, and an internal affairs investigation examined the incident. No, the Court of Appeals says, this is propensity evidence, and we can't tell the jury that the defendant has a tendency to use chokeholds in domestic incident when he is verbally challenged. This propensity evidence may make sense to the layperson, but the federal rules of evidence are clear that, for the most part, propensity evidence is inadmissible. 

Plaintiff also wanted to prove to the jury that the NYPD disapproves of chokeholds. The trial court denied that effort. Even if the trial court's ruling was an abuse of discretion, that is not grounds for a new trial, the Court of Appeals says, because it was harmless error. That's because the officer himself testified that the NYPD prohibits chokeholds, and he denied applying one to the plaintiff.The jury was entitled to believe the officer's testimony that he did not apply any chokehold, and it also heard evidence that chokeholds are improper under departmental policy. Harmless error.

What about the jury charge? Plaintiff wanted the judge to instruct the jury that officers need a warrant make an arrest inside someone's home. The trial judge rejected that charge. That was not error, the Court of Appeals said. While officers need a warrant to make an arrest, plaintiff did not bring a false arrest case, and in excessive force cases, the rules are different. The question in excessive force cases is whether the officer's use of force was objectively reasonable under the circumstances, not whether the officer had a legal basis to enter the house and arrest plaintiff.

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