Complaining Victim’s Allegedly False Accusation of Assault Insufficient to Establish False Arrest Claim

In Betts v. Shearman et al, decided May 2, 2014, the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s claims for false arrest and malicious prosecution arising from his wife’s an encounter in which, he claims, his wife falsely accused him of assaulting her.

Plaintiff alleged the following:

On January 20, 2011 at approximately 11:30 p.m., while Shearman was under the influence of alcohol and other controlled substances, she became verbally combative towards her then husband Betts. To avoid her, Betts locked himself in a spare bedroom. Shearman tried to force her way in and threatened Betts that if he did not let her in, she would call the police. Shearman then called the police and falsely accused Betts of assaulting her.

At approximately 1:00 a.m., Police Officers Rodriguez and Doe responded to the call. In their presence, Shearman accused Betts of assault, harassment, and of slamming her arm against the ground, causing her substantial pain. The officers forcibly entered the spare bedroom where Betts was sleeping and arrested him.

Betts alleges that the officers then assisted Shearman in making a false accusation and coached her in fabricating a version of the events to justify the arrest. Betts also alleges there were reasons for the officers to doubt Shearman’s credibility: Shearman was obviously intoxicated, high, and appeared strung out; she had made false accusations against Betts in the past; and there was a lack of physical evidence to support an assault charge.

The officers charged Betts with assault in the third degree, harassment in the second degree and resisting arrest. The state court dismissed these charges with prejudice.

The court summarized the law as to plaintiff’s false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious claims as follows:

Probable cause is a complete defense to a constitutional claim of false arrest, and false imprisonment. And continuing probable cause is a complete defense to a constitutional claim of malicious prosecution. Probable cause exists when one has knowledge of, or reasonably trustworthy information as to, facts and circumstances that are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested.

More specifically, probable cause exists if a law enforcement officer received [] information from some person, normally the putative victim or eyewitness, unless the circumstances raise doubt as to the person’s veracity. The reliability or veracity of the informant and the basis for the informant’s knowledge are two important factors.

Even in the absence of probable cause, a police officer is entitled to qualified immunity where (1) [her] conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, or (2) it was objectively reasonable for [her] to believe that [her] actions were lawful at the time of the challenged act. Plaintiff’s false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution claims therefore turn on whether the defendant officers’ probable cause determination was objectively reasonable—that is, whether there was arguable probable cause to arrest.

The court held that the officers had “arguable probable cause” and were therefore entitled to qualified immunity:

Officers Rodriguez and Doe responded to a domestic disturbance based on Shearman’s report over the phone that she had been assaulted and found Betts locked in a bedroom. Betts alleged, and now argues, that the officers had reason to doubt Shearman’s credibility because she was visibly intoxicated and had made false accusations against Betts in the past, and because there was a lack of physical evidence to support an assault charge.

Shearman’s past false accusations, however, do not undermine a finding of arguable probable cause because Betts nowhere alleged that the officers knew of the prior accusations on the night Betts was arrested. When determining whether probable cause exists courts must consider those facts available to the officer at the time of the arrest and immediately before it. Likewise, the lack of physical evidence of an assault on Shearman’s body is not fatal to finding arguable probable cause when Shearman had reported that she had been assaulted. A police officer’s purpose is to apprehend those suspected of wrongdoing, and not to finally determine guilt through a weighing of the evidence. (Emphasis in original.)

Also unpersuasive was plaintiff’s argument that the alleged victim (Shearman) was “obviously intoxicated and high, in that she appeared to be strung out”, since he failed to allege any facts as to how the officers would have known this at the time. In sum, the arresting officers had arguable probable cause to arrest Betts because they were entitled to believe Shearman’s accusation of assault absent credible reasons not to.”

Next, the court dismissed plaintiff’s claims that he was denied a fair trial. Plaintiff claimed that the officers “assisted Shearman in making a false allegation” and “coached her in fabricating a contrived version of the events to justify a baseless and false arrest.” This claim was undermined by Shearman’s initial phone call:

Betts, however, also alleges that Shearman initially phoned the police and made the same “false” accusations that, among other things, Betts assaulted her. The original accusation without the possibility of any police complicity was sufficient to sustain the arrest, thereby undermining the claim that it was the police whose false accusation denied Betts a fair trial. Moreover, it is not plausible that, without more, a complaining witness who had originally conceived of false accusations on her own accord also required “coaching” in making substantially the same accusations again.

Finally, the court held that plaintiff failed to plausibly allege that Shearman was acting “jointly” with the officers, such that she was acting “under color of” state law within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

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