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Gagnon v. Ball

decided: December 8, 1982.

DORIS E. GAGNON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
ARCHIBALD BALL AND THOMAS LAPLACA, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR OFFICIAL CAPACITIES AS OFFICERS IN THE POLICE DEPARTMENT OF THE TOWN OF MILFORD, CONNECTICUT, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Robert C. Zampano, Judge) holding two police officers liable for an unlawful arrest in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Affirmed.

Friendly, Newman, and Kearse, Circuit Judges.

Author: Newman

NEWMAN, Circuit Judge:

Defendant police officers Archibald Ball and Thomas Laplaca appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut (Robert C. Zampano, Judge) entered upon a jury verdict finding them liable for an unlawful arrest in an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants contended that the evidence entitled them to judgment notwithstanding the verdict. We agree with Judge Zampano's rejection of this claim and therefore affirm the judgment.

Background

Plaintiff-appellee Doris Gagnon lives in Milford, Connecticut. In 1971, her home was condemned in connection with the development of the Silver Sands State Park. Mrs. Gagnon fiercely objected to this taking, and refused the compensation offered by the State. She also refused to leave the land she previously owned, living there in a trailer and two tin sheds, which she shared with chickens, geese, and ducks.

Prior to the incident from which this case arose, Mrs. Gagnon had been a persistent and vocal critic of various governmental agencies, including the Milford Police Department. She frequently complained that the police ignored her calls, and that they provided the Town of Milford with inadequate protection against crime.

On the evening of October 15, 1977, Mrs. Gagnon was sitting in one of her sheds, dressed in night clothes. A man appeared at the door and unclothed himself in an indecent manner. Arming herself with a pellet gun that she used to frighten off raccoons, Mrs. Gagnon chased the intruder toward the main road of the State Park. There he jumped into his car and started to drive away.

Immediately thereafter, the defendant police officers drove by in the course of a routine police patrol. Mrs. Gagnon ran toward their car shouting, "Get that sonofabitch,"*fn1 and waving her gun. She urged the officers to "get" the departing vehicle, claiming that its driver had tried to rape her. Officer Ball got out of the police car, disarmed Mrs. Gagnon, and, without inquiring into the circumstances of her complaint, arrested her.

After allowing Mrs. Gagnon time to change from her night clothes, defendants took her to police headquarters, where she was charged with breach of the peace, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-181, and carrying a dangerous weapon, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53-206. Mrs. Gagnon was held in detention for more than one hour and was thereafter obliged to make several court appearances, incurring legal expenses of approximately $500. In August, 1978, almost one year after her arrest, the charges against Mrs. Gagnon were nolled.

Mrs. Gagnon then brought this suit against defendants, alleging that her constitutional rights had been denied by an unlawful arrest in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The jury, answering interrogatories, found in her favor and awarded compensatory damages of $5,000 against each defendant,*fn2 and punitive damages of $4,000 and $1,000 against Officers Ball and Laplaca, respectively. The District Court set aside the award of punitive damages against Officer Laplaca but otherwise declined to modify the jury's verdict. This appeal followed.

Discussion

Appellants principally urge that the record contained uncontroverted evidence establishing probable cause to arrest,*fn3 and accordingly that they were entitled to judgment notwithstanding the verdict. An examination of the record in the light of applicable Connecticut law indicates that appellants' claim is without merit.

To establish probable cause to arrest for breach of peace, appellants rely on uncontroverted evidence showing that Mrs. Gagnon was shouting and using rough language in a public area. Connecticut law, however, proscribes such conduct only if it is undertaken with an "intent to cause inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof," Conn. Gen. Stat. § 53a-181. Accordingly, to justify rejection of the jury's verdict, appellants must show that no ...


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