Second Circuit: When Evaluating Probable Cause in the Context of New York False Arrest and Malicious Prosecution Claims, All Circumstances Must Be Considered

The Second Circuit recently held, in Stansbury v. Wertman, that when evaluating the existence of probable cause in the context of false arrest and malicious prosecution claims, the evidence must be evaluated as a whole, and not item-by-item.

In Stansbury, the plaintiff sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging false arrest and malicious prosecution following her acquittal of shoplifting charges.

Defendant moved for summary judgment, asserting that (1) there was probable cause for plaintiff’s arrest and (2) he was entitled to qualified immunity based on the existence of arguable probable cause. The trial court denied that motion, finding genuine issues of material fact.

The Second Circuit disagreed, faulting the district court for “analyzing the evidence seriatim and in isolation” and finding that “[i]n its totality, the evidence provided Defendant with probable cause to arrest and prosecute Plaintiff.”

The law provides:

[P]robable cause is an absolute defense to a false arrest claim. An officer has probable cause to arrest when he or she has knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information of facts and circumstances that are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that the person to be arrested has committed a crime.  A court must consider [only] those facts available to the officer at the time of the arrest and immediately before it. A court examines each piece of evidence and considers its probative value, and then look[s] to the totality of the circumstances to evaluate whether there was probable cause to arrest and prosecute the plaintiff.

The Second Circuit highlighted the importance of viewing all of the evidence together, rather than in isolation:

The district court analyzed the evidence seriatim, finding that no piece of evidence was sufficient in itself to establish arguable probable cause. Although it adequately evaluated the pieces of evidence that it chose to consider, the district court erred insofar as it did not account for the evidence on the totality of the circumstances.

The totality of the circumstances test is no mere formality; it may frequently alter the outcome of a case. Those who do not take into account conditional probability are prone to making mistakes in judging evidence. They may think that if a particular fact does not itself prove the ultimate proposition (e.g., whether the officer had probable cause), the fact may be tossed aside and the next fact may be evaluated as if the first did not exist.

The significance of each [relevant] factor[ ] may be enhanced or diminished by surrounding circumstances. Review for probable cause should encompass plainly exculpatory evidence alongside inculpatory evidence to ensure the court has a full sense of the evidence that led the officer to believe that there was probable cause to make an arrest. A story is never a single chapter, it is the experience of the entire tale; the same is true of probable cause.

The Court found that the totality of evidence in this case – including the purchase of items used in the theft with a credit card traced to plaintiff’s daughter, admittedly flawed photo identifications, and plaintiff’s nervousness and evasiveness during questioning – supported a finding of probable cause.

The mere presence of exculpatory evidence did not change this result, since the only exculpatory evidence (a store employee’s guess of the perpetrator’s height that was off by four inches) was, at best, a deficiency that “was overcome by other evidence, including a positive, sworn identification by the same employee.”

Finally, “once probable cause has been established, it is impossible for plaintiff to prevail on a malicious prosecution claim as a matter of law.”  Therefore, the Court found that that claim should have been dismissed on summary judgment as well.

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