Court Explains Reasons for Upholding $150,000 False Arrest Jury Verdict

In Graham v. City of New York, No. 08-CV-3518 MKB, 2015 WL 5258741 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2015), the court upheld a jury verdict that NYPD officers falsely arrested the plaintiff for “obstructing governmental administration” in violation of NY Penal Law § 195.05. Here is plaintiff’s complaint.

This case arose from a factual scenario that could very well happen to any New Yorker:

On June 8, 2007, at approximately 5:30 PM, Plaintiff and his four-year old son, J.G., were in their vehicle on Church Avenue, near the intersection of East 96th Street in Brooklyn, New York. Defendant police officers Glenn and Ugbomah were in their marked police vehicle on Church Avenue, attempting to respond to a 9–1–1 call regarding an emergency at Church Avenue and Rockaway Parkway, one block from Plaintiff’s location. As the officers’ vehicle approached the intersection of Church Avenue and East 96th Street, they did not have their lights or sirens on. Glenn and Ugbomah pulled behind Plaintiff and attempted to get around Plaintiff’s vehicle, chirping the sirens at Plaintiff. When Glenn realized that they could not drive any further due to the traffic conditions, caused by a red light at the intersection, Glenn pulled into the bus stop to Plaintiff’s right, behind a bus that was pulling out of the stop and into traffic. The police car became boxed in, and Glenn could not maneuver around either the bus or the traffic in the street, and he gestured to Plaintiff to move right and backward, alongside the back of the bus, so that he could drive around Plaintiff’s vehicle. Plaintiff gestured back by putting his hands up in an inquiring manner, attempting to indicate his belief that he could not move, which Glenn interpreted as a gesture of exasperation. …

The encounter culminated in plaintiff’s arrest. The matter was ultimately dismissed because a legally sufficient accusatory instrument was never filed in court.

The law:

In assessing Fourth Amendment claims of false arrest brought under Section 1983, courts generally look to the law of the state in which the arrest is alleged to have occurred. To avoid liability for a claim of false arrest, an arresting officer may demonstrate that either (1) he had probable cause for the arrest, or (2) he is protected from liability because he has qualified immunity. … An arresting officer has probable cause [for an arrest] when the officer 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 or is committing a crime. Under New York Law, a person is guilty of [obstructing governmental administration] when he intentionally (1) prevents or attempt[s] to prevent (2) a public servant, from (3) performing an official function (4) by means of intimidation, physical force or interference, or by means of any independently unlawful act[.]

Judge Brodie held that there was a legally sufficient basis for the jury verdict in plaintiff’s favor, noting (among other things) that

once the light turned green, there is no dispute that the police vehicle was able to proceed to the scene of the emergency without issue—Plaintiff made no attempt to block Glenn’s way, and pulled his car to the side of the road. (Tr. 297:20–298:3.) If Plaintiff had no room to reverse his vehicle while stuck in traffic, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, Glenn could not have reasonably believed that Plaintiff was intentionally preventing Glenn from responding to the emergency, and Glenn therefore did not have probable cause to arrest Plaintiff for OGA.

It also held that defendants were not entitled to judgment as a matter of law on their defense of qualified immunity, finding that “the testimony present[ed] factual issues as to whether Defendants’ actions were reasonable under the circumstances.”

Specifically, “it would not be objectively reasonable for any reasonably competent officer to believe that Plaintiff’s inability to reverse his vehicle, decision to wait at the intersection until Glenn returned from the emergency, and decision to ask Glenn a question while he held out his insurance and registration documents—which documents Glenn did not take from Plaintiff—constituted [obstruction of governmental administration].”

The court also upheld the jury’s $150,000 damages award as not excessive, noting that plaintiff’s combined injuries included approximately one hour of lost liberty, handcuffing-related wrist pain, and “substantial emotional harm from being handcuffed in front of [his young son] J.G., J.G.’s day care provider and the public on the street, seeing his young child in extreme distress while Plaintiff was arrested, and from the trauma, embarrassment and humiliation that accompanied that exposure both during the arrest and thereafter.”

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