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MONTALVO v. HUTCHINSON

November 22, 1993

JAMES MONTALVO, Plaintiff,
v.
Police Officers KENNETH HUTCHINSON, CALVIN McARTHUR and ROBERT RIELLO; NEW YORK CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT, 26TH POLICE STATION, Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: VINCENT L. BRODERICK

 VINCENT L. BRODERICK, U.S.D.J.

 I

 This challenge to discovery rulings of a United States Magistrate Judge presents questions of the role of the courts in protecting both rights of plaintiffs in police misconduct cases to obtain discovery necessary to pursuit of their claims, and the interests of the public and police departments in avoiding unnecessary interference with legitimate police operations. Neither interest can be sacrificed to the other.

 Fairness and effectiveness in law enforcement are interdependent. The watchers - the police who monitor and seek to prevent crime - must themselves be watched. At the same time police agencies must be able to perform their functions. This combination of necessities is reflected at its highest level in the objective of "domestic Tranquillity" set forth in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, conjoined with the due process mandates of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, implemented by 28 USC 1983 and other statutes.

 II

 Discovery is both a tool for achieving justice and a weapon. Its necessity and its risks, leading to appropriate limitations on potential abuse, each require full recognition. These aspects must be reconciled in the current case in the context of charges of police misconduct necessitating sensitivity to the need to protect the public against both crime and police misbehavior.

 Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(b) is balanced by Fed.R.Civ.P. 26(c), which permits orders "to protect a party or person from . . . undue burden," and provides wide latitude in the means selected to achieve that goal. Police activities are by nature burdened if those in conflict with the police have unlimited access to personnel records, Grand Jury minutes and other confidential information merely because a lawsuit is filed which can survive the relatively low threshold of stating a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

 In camera inspection to determine relevancy and importance of documents sought is one way of reconciling these interests, depending on the nature of the issues and material sought. The usefulness of materials sought "may not be as apparent to the impartial presiding judge as to single-minded counsel . . . the latter is in a far better position to appraise the value" of particular items. People v. Rosario, 9 N.Y.2d 286, 290, 173 N.E.2d 881, 213 N.Y.S.2d 448, 451 (1961).

 That interest, however, must be balanced against the harm threatened by wholesale discovery of police personnel records and Grand Jury material; a partial synthesis may be attempted by permitting counsel to describe the kind of item claimed to be relevant. Such a description can be utilized in other contexts where further disclosure is sought, for example, in determining whether further discovery is needed before a motion for summary judgment can be granted. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(f).

 III

 Plaintiff, who has alleged police misconduct and brought this case under 28 USC 1983, objects to several discovery rulings of United States Magistrate Judge Sharon E. Grubin. The Magistrate Judge did not bar plaintiff from securing the information sought through detailed supported requests, or based upon her in camera evaluation of the extent of its relevance, but rejected the blanket nature of the requests which are the subject of the objections before me.

 I overrule each of the objections. I find no grounds for concluding that the Magistrate Judge acted contrary to law or that her rulings were clearly erroneous, in significant part because she only barred use of arguably overbroad demands on the part of plaintiff; viable avenues remain open to plaintiff to secure information which meets the criteria of Fed.R.Civ.P. 26.

 IV

 Parties in litigation are entitled to determine what positions they wish to take, and to insist on rulings on issues in the form they wish to present them. This function of the Bar must be free of judicial discouragement or interference in order for the ...


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