The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rakoff, District Judge
When one person badly beats another, leaving him bloody and battered,
may the assaulter escape arrest by simply asserting, without
corroboration, that he was acting in self-defense? Common sense suggests
otherwise, and the law, as this case illustrates, follows the
The facts pertinent to defendants' instant summary judgment motion,
undisputed except as otherwise indicated, are as follows. On April 22,
1998, several New York City police officers from the 13th Police Precinct
responded to a "911" call reporting a fight in progress at 27th Street
and Third Avenue in Manhattan. See Declaration of Christopher Callahan
("Callahan Decl.") at ¶ 2. The first two officers to arrive at the
scene, Thomas Rindos and Robert Rennie, observed two men, later
identified as the plaintiff, Robert Moscoso, and one Li Shing Wang, on
the ground, struggling with a hammer. See Declaration of Thomas Rindos
("Rindos Decl.") at ¶ 2. By the time the individually-named
defendant in this case, officer Christopher Callahan, responded to the
scene with his partner, the men had been separated and Wang was sitting
on the ground holding a bloody towel to his head and being aided by
police officers. See Callahan Decl. ¶ 2. Officer Callahan was
assigned to investigate and to determine whether an arrest should be
made. See id. ¶ 3.
Pursuant to those duties, Officer Callahan was informed that a fight
involving a hammer had occurred, see id., and that the plaintiff had come
to the scene of the fight from the apartment of one Susanna Lau, which
was located nearby. See id. ¶ 4. Officer Callahan and two other
officers proceeded to the apartment to speak to Ms. Lau and to find out
if the hammer had come from her apartment. See id. Ms. Lau acknowledged
that the plaintiff had been at her apartment shortly prior to the fight.
See id. ¶ 5.
Ms Lau's account, however, is different and must be credited for the
purpose of defendants' motion, since it supports plaintiffs position.
According to Ms. Lau, she never offered a description of the hammer to
the Police Officers, nor stated it was missing, but rather showed her
hammer to them. See Decl. of John F. Queenan, Ex. C, Deposition of
Susanna Lau ("Lau Dep.") at 155. She confirms that she failed to identify
the hammer she was shown at the precinct house, but avers that her denial
of ownership at the precinct was consistent with her statements in her
apartment. See Decl. of John F. Queenan, Ex. C, Stmt. of Susanna Lau ("Lau
Stmt." at 3.
In any event, it is undisputed that Wang was taken to Bellevue hospital
for treatment of his injuries. See Callahan Decl. ¶ 7; Declaration
of Frederick Moreira ("Moreira Decl.") ¶ 3. While there, he told
Officer Moreira that he had rung Ms. Lau's doorbell but had not been
buzzed in and that he had then walked to a payphone on Third Avenue to
call Ms. Lau, whereupon the plaintiff "approached him from the side,
argued with him, and then struck him with a hammer." Moreira Decl. at
Moreira returned to the precinct house and informed Officer Callahan of
Mr. Wang's statement and of the fact that Mr. Wang had been bleeding
profusely from the head. Moreira also gave Callahan a copy of the
"memobook" in which he had recorded his conversation with Wang. See
Moreira Decl. at ¶ 7; Callahan Decl. at ¶ 7. Officer Callahan
was also furnished with statements taken by other officers at the scene,
including a statement from a witness who had seen the two men fighting
and a statement from the doorman who had placed the 911 call. See
Callahan Decl. at ¶ 7; id. Ex. A. Neither of these statements,
however, shed light on the question of which man had initiated the fight
or which brought the hammer to the scene. See id. Ex. A.
For his part, plaintiff told the police that Wang had attacked him and
that he had been merely defending himself. See Moscoso Dep. at 282. He
also claimed that the hammer belonged to Mr. Wang. See id. at 287.
After analyzing these competing statements, Officer Callahan determined
to arrest plaintiff and, along with Officer Moreira, completed the arrest
paperwork, see Callahan Decl. at ¶ 4; Moreira Decl. at ¶ 7.
Plaintiff was charged with second degree assault and fourth degree
possession of a weapon, see Declaration of Thomas Sheehan ("Sheehan
Decl."), Ex. A. Subsequently, however, a determination was reached not to
proceed with the case, and the charges were dismissed on June 8, 1998.
See Complaint at ¶ 16.
Some months later, plaintiff commenced the instant action, alleging
various claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York state law against
Officer Callahan, the City of New York, and the Police Commissioner of
the City of New York. See Complaint ¶¶ 17-57. While differing in
their particulars, the various causes of action ultimately reduce to
claims of false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution,*fn1
attributed in the first instance to the arresting officer, Callahan. The
threshold question in such a case is whether there existed probable cause
to arrest. "[T]he existence of probable cause to arrest constitutes
justification and `is a complete defense to an action for false
arrest' whether that action is brought under state law or under §
1983." Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir. 1996), quoting Bernard
v. United States, 25 F.3d 98, 102 (2d Cir. 1994); see also Bryant v.
Rudman, 933 F. Supp. 270, 274 (S.D.N.Y. 199(3); Dukes v. City of New
York, 879 F. Supp. 335, 340-43 (S.D.N.Y. 1995). Similarly, probable cause
is a bar to claims of malicious prosecution directed at the arresting
officer under § 1983 or cognate state law, unless that officer,
following the arrest but prior to initiating prosecution, learned of
facts that would negate his earlier determination of probable cause.
See, e.g., Dukes v. City of New York, 879 F. Supp. 335, 341-42 (S.D.N.Y.
"[P]robable cause to arrest exists when the officers have 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."
Weyant, supra, at 852. Because on this summary judgment motion by
defendants the Court must consider the facts in the light most favorable
to the plaintiff, the Court will assume that only the following
undisputed facts could have been reasonably relied upon by Officer
Callahan in deciding to arrest the plaintiff: 1) officers arriving at the
scene observed the plaintiff and Wang struggling over a hammer; 2)
Officer Callahan observed Mr. Wang bleeding profusely from the head; 3)
Mr. Wang stated that the plaintiff had approached him from the side and
hit him with a hammer; and 4) plaintiff admitted hitting Wang but
asserted that he was acting in self-defense and that Wang had brought the
hammer.*fn2 The question then is whether a claim of assault made by one
participant in an altercation, supported by evidence of significant
injury, can constitute probable cause for the arrest of the other,
uninjured, participant notwithstanding the latter's claims of
In answering this question, the Court looks to Ricciuti v. N.Y.C.
Transit Authority, 124 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 1997). In that case, a police
officer was approached by a man, Harlice Watson, who was bleeding and
carrying a pair of broken eyeglasses. See id. at 125. Watson stated that
he was a corrections officer, showed the officer his identification, and
stated that the plaintiff in that case, Alfred Ricciuti, had attacked him
without provocation. See id. Based on this statement, the police officer
arrested Ricciuti. See id. Shortly thereafter, Ricciuti's nephew
approached and protested the arrest, stating that his uncle was innocent.
See id. The officer ignored these protests, and continued on to the
station with Ricciuti. See id. The Second Circuit, in reviewing the
district court's determination that the officer in that case was entitled
to qualified immunity, stated the following:
Although Officer Lopez would have been entitled to
believe Alfred Ricciuti's version of events rather
than Watson's, he was not required to do so. Given
Watson's version of events and his visible injuries, a
competent police officer could believe that it was
objectively reasonable to arrest plaintiff for the
assault that had been committed. The officer was not
required to make a full investigation into plaintiffs
state of mind prior to taking action. Once a police
officer has a reasonable basis for believing there is
probable cause, he is not required to explore and
eliminate every theoretically plausible claim of
innocence before making the arrest. . . . Here,
Watson's version of events was plausible, and his
credibility was buttressed by the fact that he
identified himself [as] a law enforcement officer.
Under the ...