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BENJAMIN v. UNITED STATES

December 6, 1982

EUGENE TIM BENJAMIN, III, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION and UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: NEAHER

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

 Plaintiff, Eugene T. Benjamin, III, brought this action pursuant to the Federal Torts Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h), alleging that defendants were responsible for his false arrest and imprisonment on bank robbery charges. The case was tried without a jury solely on the issue of liability. After hearing the testimony of the parties and examining their exhibits, the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.

 The Facts

 On Friday, February 23, 1979, the American Federal Savings and Loan Association in Macon, Georgia, was robbed by two individuals of approximately $1,965.50. Pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2113, the local police called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), and Special Agent Richard Bigler, an FBI agent of 15 years standing, was placed in charge of investigating the robbery.

 One of the first steps in the investigation was the State-wide dissemination of bank surveillance photographs taken on the day of the robbery. Two police officers of the Valdosta, Georgia Police Department, Lieutenant Walker and Patrolman Hankins, saw these photographs and immediately identified one photograph as being Eugene T. Benjamin, a former resident of Valdosta. FBI Special Agent Jerry Sparks, who was stationed in Valdosta, interviewed both officers and confirmed their original identification. Both stated they had known Benjamin for most of his life and had numerous contacts with him on the street. Moreover, Lt. Walker told Agent Sparks that he had shown the photographs to Benjamin's former employer, who was then a prisoner at the Valdosta City Jail, and he had also positively identified Benjamin from the photographs.

 The next day, Agent Sparks relayed this information by phone to Agent Bigler. Both Agent Bigler and the Assistant United States Attorney in charge of the case agreed that a positive identification by two police officers of a suspect known to both for several years was sufficient probable cause to arrest, and together they drafted a complaint naming Benjamin as a defendant. This complaint, along with an arrest warrant, was presented to and signed by United States Magistrate John Hancock on February 28, 1979. According to standard FBI procedures, Agent Bigler entered the arrest warrant in the National Crime Information Computer ("NCIC"), an intelligence network that makes arrest warrants available to law enforcement officials nationwide.

 Benjamin first became aware that the FBI was looking for him in connection with the Macon, Georgia bank robbery during a phone call to his grandmother in Valdosta on March 22, 1979. Convinced that he could prove he was in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York on the day of the robbery, Benjamin immediately telephoned the Brooklyn-Queens FBI office in order to clear up the mistake. The Brooklyn-Queens office, however, could not confirm the existence of a Georgia warrant for Benjamin's arrest without making a computer check, so Benjamin was asked to call the bank robbery division the next morning.

 After Benjamin's phone call, an NCIC inquiry was made which indicated that a federal warrant for a "Eugene Benjamin" was outstanding. The computer information was subsequently confirmed by a phone call to the Macon, Georgia FBI office. When Benjamin called the next day, March 23, 1979, he was informed of the existence of the warrant and was told to turn himself in. Benjamin gathered together the various documents he believed would show his whereabouts on February 22, 1979 and proceeded to the FBI office in Queens.

 On his arrival at the FBI office, and despite his protestations of innocence, Benjamin was immediately placed under arrest for bank robbery by Special Agent Richard Robley. During the post-arrest interview, Agent Robley examined the numerous "scrambled" documents presented by Benjamin, but was unpersuaded that any of these papers could establish a conclusive alibi. Although the testimony differs on this point, Agent Robley's notes indicate that Benjamin did not provide the names of any individuals who would confirm his presence in Brooklyn on February 22, 1979.

 Approximately four hours after his arrest, Benjamin was arraigned on bank robbery charges before United States Magistrate A. Simon Chrein in the Eastern District of New York. The Magistrate appointed legal counsel for Benjamin, and after a brief conference with this attorney, Benjamin pleaded not guilty. On advice of counsel, Benjamin waived his right to an extradition hearing and consented to the issuance of a warrant for his removal to the Middle District of Georgia. The Magistrate then set bail at $2,500 and ordered Benjamin extradited or released by April 2, 1979.

 Unable to post bail, Benjamin was incarcerated in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan until Friday, March 30, 1979, when he was transported by United States Marshals to the Bibbs County Jail in Macon, Georgia. No field investigation into Benjamin's claims of innocence was conducted until Monday, April 2, 1979, when Agent Bigler, after interviewing Benjamin for the first time, learned that several individuals could possibly corroborate Benjamin's presence in Brooklyn on the day of the robbery. Although Agent Robley began investigating these leads the evening of April 2, 1979, none of the alibi witnesses substantiated Benjamin's contentions.

 The case against Benjamin suddenly crumbled on April 6, 1979. On that day, photographs taken of Benjamin at the time of his arrest were shown to bank employees with uniformly negative results. That afternoon Police Officers Hankins and Walker informed Agent Bigler that they no longer felt positive about their previous identification and did not want "to get involved in any identification of the bank photographs as being that of [Benjamin]." Defendant's Exhibit U. Faced with this sudden change in position, Assistant United States Attorney Boyd decided that the case lacked supportive evidence and requested Magistrate Hancock to dismiss the complaint. Thus after 14 days in jail, Benjamin was released and the bank robbery charges were dropped.

 The Law

 In 1974, the Federal Torts Claims Act (FTCA) was amended to allow claims of false arrest or imprisonment resulting from the wrongful acts or omissions of "investigative or law enforcement officers of the United States Government" to be brought in federal district court. 28 U.S.C. § 2680(h). As in all cases under the FTCA, the government's liability for the conduct of its agents is determined "in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." Id. § 1386(b), construed in Hess v. United States, 361 U.S. 314, 4 L. Ed. 2d 305, 80 S. ...


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