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Taylor v. City of Syracuse

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT NORTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK


April 7, 2009

MICHAEL TAYLOR; ROBERT MCNEILL; AND DAMON JOHNSON, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF SYRACUSE; POLICE OFFICER ROSE; POLICE OFFICER MILLS; SERGEANT HOLTMAN; SERGEANT DERBY; AND UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICERS, DEFENDANTS.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Glenn T. Suddaby, United States District Judge*fn1

DECISION and ORDER

Michael Taylor, Robert McNeill, and Damon Johnson ("Plaintiffs") filed this civil rights action, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against the City of Syracuse, Syracuse Police Officers Rose and Mills, Syracuse Police Sergeants Holtman and Derby, and an unspecified number of unidentified police officers ("Defendants"). In their Complaint, Plaintiffs generally allege that on July 15, 2002, outside of Anna's Restaurant and Bar in Syracuse, New York ("Anna's Restaurant"), that Defendants violated Plaintiffs' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments by (1) falsely arresting all three Plaintiffs for disorderly conduct, (2) subjecting Plaintiff Johnson to excessive force by pepper spraying him, and (3) discriminating against Plaintiffs based upon their race. (Dkt. No. 1 [Plfs.' Compl.].) Currently pending before the Court is Defendants' motion for summary judgment made pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. (Dkt. No. 32.)*fn2 For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion is granted in its entirety.

I. LEGAL STANDARD

For the sake of brevity, the Court will not repeat the well-known legal standard governing motions for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, but will refer the parties to its decision in Proctor v. Kelly, 05-CV-0692, 2008 WL 5243925, at *3-4 (N.D.N.Y. Dec. 16, 2008) (Suddaby, J.).

II. STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED MATERIAL FACTS

The following material facts are either undisputed by the parties, or are construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs (as the non-moving parties):

1. On July 14, 2002,*fn3 at approximately 10:30 P.M., Michael Taylor, Damon Johnson, Robert McNeill, John Coles, and Marva King left 604 1/2 University Avenue, and drove in two or three cars to Anna's Restaurant, located on Fayette Street in Syracuse, New York;*fn4

2. On July 14, 2002, Plaintiff McNeill was twenty years old and was served alcohol while at Anna's Restaurant;*fn5

3. While at Anna's Restaurant, Plaintiff Taylor ran a tab by giving the bartender his credit card, and Plaintiff Taylor's party of approximately eight people ate chicken wings and drank alcohol;*fn6

4. While at Anna's Restaurant, Plaintiff McNeill saw one or two other "black guys he knew of;"*fn7

5. While at Anna's Restaurant, Plaintiffs were approached by employees of Anna's Restaurant, including James Quinn (who is Caucasian), and were told to leave the bar because a member of their group had allegedly grabbed a female patron's buttocks;*fn8

6. One of the bouncers who approached Plaintiffs was African-American;*fn9

7. James Quinn was the manager of Anna's Restaurant on July 14, 2002;*fn10

8. James Quinn pushed Plaintiff Johnson inside Anna's Restaurant, in an attempt to get him to leave;*fn11

9. Once Plaintiff Johnson was pushed, a "pushing match" ensued between himself and James Quinn;*fn12

10. The situation became elevated because of the arguing back and forth between employees of Anna's Restaurant and Plaintiffs;*fn13

11. According to Plaintiff Johnson, the manager of Anna's Restaurant (i.e., James Quinn) pushed him out of Anna's Restaurant, while telling Plaintiff Johnson's party to leave;*fn14

12. Once Plaintiffs were outside of Anna's Restaurant, by the door, Plaintiff McNeill's cousin, John Coles, was struck in the face by an unidentified person; once he was hit, Plaintiff McNeill went to retaliate; however, the person who struck Coles had run away;*fn15

13. According to Plaintiff McNeill, once Coles was struck, "[t]hat kind of sparked the whole stampede of things," and "it was crazy by that point";*fn16

14. Subsequently, Coles fled the scene;*fn17

15. At approximately this time, police officers started arriving, and culprits started fleeing;*fn18

16. One of the police officers who arrived was Defendant Rose;*fn19

17. Plaintiff Taylor identified himself to Defendant Rose as a "retired police officer," and Rose responded, "Then get the f*** away from me."*fn20

18. Defendant Rose observed Plaintiff Johnson and James Quinn in what he believed to be a physical altercation outside Anna's Restaurant;*fn21

19. Subsequently, Defendant Rose pepper-sprayed Plaintiff Johnson and James Quinn;*fn22

20. Plaintiff Taylor was standing a few feet behind Plaintiff Johnson when Defendant Rose pepper-sprayed Johnson;*fn23

21. In response to Defendant Rose's pepper-spraying of Plaintiff Johnson, Plaintiff Taylor said to Defendant Rose, "[W]hy are you doing that? He's not doing anything"; and Defendant Rose responded, "[G]et the hell out of here . . . ."*fn24

22. Meanwhile, according to Plaintiff McNeill, "[After I was] forced out [of Anna's Restaurant, I observed] a couple of guys allegedly helping the owner out . . . [and stated] y'all bugging out [sic] . . . I'm saying what I'm saying, a couple curse words here and there . . . and a cop came up and just arrested me. . . . I'm like yo, y'all f'ing bugging [sic]"; in addition, he states that he said, "[T]his is bullshit;"*fn25

23. The owner of Anna's Restaurant told Defendant Rose that it was Plaintiff Taylor who had inappropriately touched a female patron at Anna's Restaurant;*fn26

24. Subsequently, all three Plaintiffs were arrested for disorderly conduct by (or at the instruction of) Defendant Rose;*fn27

25. After the arrests took place, one of the female patrons told Defendant Rose that it wasPlaintiff Taylor who had inappropriately touched her;*fn28

26. Plaintiff Johnson sat in a Syracuse Police Department paddy-wagon for "at least 45-50 . . . minutes . . . and was crying because of the burning in his eyes;"*fn29

27. All three Plaintiffs were transported to the Justice Center in the paddy wagon;*fn30

28. At some point between his arrest at 12:00 A.M. and his booking at 2:40 A.M., Plaintiff Johnson was "hosed . . . down" by one or more police officers in order to remove the pepper spray from his eyes, leaving him "soaking wet;"*fn31

29. According to Plaintiff Taylor, he had three drinks of Hennessy and a Heineken beer within one and one half hours; once in booking and at approximately 2:40 A.M., Plaintiff Taylor was administered an Alco Sensor test by the Onondaga County Sheriff's Custody Department at the Justice Center; the Alco Sensor reading for Plaintiff Taylor was .09;*fn32

30. Plaintiff McNeill was twenty years old on July 15, 2002, and was illegally served alcohol while at Anna's Restaurant; according to Plaintiff McNeill, after being at Anna's Restaurant approximately one and one half hours he had consumed two or three drinks; once in booking, Plaintiff McNeill was administered an Alco Sensor test by the Onondaga County Sheriff's Custody Department at the Justice Center; the Alco Sensor reading for Plaintiff McNeill was .06;*fn33 and

31. While at Anna's Restaurant for approximately one and one half hours, according to Plaintiff Johnson, he consumed one drink of Hennessy and one Heineken beer; on July 15, 2002, at approximately 2:52 A.M. Plaintiff Johnson was administered an Alco Sensor test by the Onondaga County Sheriff's Custody Department at the Justice Center; the Alco Sensor reading for Plaintiff Johnson was .13.*fn34

III. DISCUSSION

A. False Arrest

To establish a claim for false arrest under New York law, a plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant intended to confine him, (2) that plaintiff was conscious of the confinement, (3) the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement, and (4) the confinement was not otherwise privileged or justified. Caidor v. M&T Bank, 05-CV-0297, 2006 WL 839547, at *4 (N.D.N.Y. March 27, 2006) (Scullin, J.) [citations omitted]. "Probable cause to arrest constitutes justification; and, if it exists, it is a complete defense to false arrest." Caidor, 2006 WL 839547, at *4 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]. "Probable cause 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 the crime." Id. [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]. "All that is needed is the mere probability of criminal activity based on the totality of the circumstances to satisfy the Fourth Amendment." Id. [citation omitted].

1. Plaintiff Johnson

Defendant Rose arrested Plaintiff Johnson for disorderly conduct. To determine whether Defendant Rose had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff Johnson for disorderly conduct, under New York State Penal Law § 240.20, it is necessary to examine the relevant elements of that violation. Section 240.20 of the New York State Penal Law provides, in pertinent part:

A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof:

1. He engages in fighting or in violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior; or

2. He makes unreasonable noise. . . .

39 N.Y. Penal Law § 240.20 (McKinney 2009).

As explained above in Part II of this Decision and Order, it is an undisputed fact that Plaintiff Johnson and James Quinn were involved in a pushing match inside Anna's Restaurant on July 15, 2002. Moreover, it is an undisputed fact that Defendant Rose observed Plaintiff Johnson and James Quinn involved in what he believed to be a physical altercation outside Anna's Restaurant on July 15, 2002. After carefully reviewing the record, and construing it in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds that there is no admissible record evidence from which a rational trier of fact could conclude that Defendant Rose lacked probable cause to arrest Plaintiff Johnson for disorderly conduct on July 15, 2002.*fn35

2. Plaintiff McNeill

Defendant Rose arrested Plaintiff McNeill for disorderly conduct. As explained above, to determine whether Defendant Rose had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff McNeill for disorderly conduct, under New York State Penal Law § 240.20, it is necessary to examine the relevant elements of that violation. New York State Penal Law § 240.20 provides, in pertinent part:

A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof: . . .

3. In a public place, he uses abusive or obscene language, or makes an obscene gesture. . . .

39 N.Y. Penal Law § 240.20 (McKinney 2009).

Plaintiff McNeill recounts what happened to him as follows: "[After I was] forced out [of Anna's Restaurant, I observed] a couple of guys allegedly helping the owner out . . . [and stated] y'all bugging out [sic] . . . I'm saying what I'm saying, a couple curse words here and there . . . and a cop came up and just arrested me. . . . I'm like yo, y'all f'ing bugging [sic]." In addition, he states that he said, "[T]his is bullshit."

After carefully reviewing the record, and construing it in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds that there is no admissible record evidence from which a rational trier of fact could conclude that Defendant Rose lacked probable cause to arrest Plaintiff McNeill for disorderly conduct on July 15, 2002.*fn36

3. Plaintiff Taylor

Defendant Rose arrested Plaintiff Taylor for disorderly conduct. As explained above, to determine whether Defendant Rose had probable cause to arrest Plaintiff Taylor for disorderly conduct under New York State Penal Law § 240.20, it is necessary to examine the relevant elements of that violation. New York State Penal Law § 240.20 provides, in pertinent part:

A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof:

1. He engages in . . . tumultuous or threatening behavior; or . . .

6. He congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse. . . .

39 N.Y. Penal Law § 240.20 (McKinney 2009).

It is an undisputed fact that Plaintiff Taylor identified himself to Defendant Rose as a "retired police officer," to which Defendant Rose responded, "Then get the f*** away from me." It is also an undisputed fact that, when Defendant Rose pepper-sprayed Plaintiff Johnson, Plaintiff Taylor was near Plaintiff Johnson; and Plaintiff Taylor said to Defendant Rose, "[W]hy are you doing that? He's not doing anything," to which Defendant Rose responded, "[G]et the hell out of here . . . ."

After carefully reviewing the record, and construing it in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds (as Defendants argue on pages 16 and 17 of their memorandum of law) that police officers of reasonable competence could disagree on whether Defendant Rose lacked probable cause to arrest Plaintiff Taylor for disorderly conduct on July 15, 2002.*fn37 Simply stated, based on the current record, qualified immunity protects Defendant Rose from liability for Plaintiff's Taylor's arrest, as a matter of law. Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 341 (1986).

In the alternative, the Court finds that no rational trier of fact could conclude that Defendant Rose lacked probable cause to arrest Plaintiff Taylor for another offense on July 15, 2002, namely, (1) forcible touching under N.Y. Penal Law § 130.52 (McKinney 2009), a class A misdemeanor, and/or (2) sexual abuse in the third degree under N.Y. Penal Law § 130.55 (McKinney 2009), a class B misdemeanor.*fn38 It must be remembered that probable cause "does not require an awareness of a particular crime, but only that some crime may have been committed."*fn39 As a result, even assuming (for the sake of argument) that probable cause did not exist to arrest Plaintiff Taylor for disorderly conduct, that arrest is "otherwise privileged or justified" if probable cause existed to arrest Taylor with another offense--even if Taylor was not actually charged with that offense.*fn40 Here, before the arrest occurred, the owner of Anna's Restaurant told Defendant Rose that it wasPlaintiff Taylor who had inappropriately touched a female patron at Anna's Restaurant. (In addition, after the arrest had occurred, one of the female patrons told Defendant Rose that it wasPlaintiff Taylor who had inappropriately touched her.) Under the circumstances, it was permissible for Defendant Rose to rely on the restaurant owner's eyewitness statement.*fn41

B. Excessive Force

As explained above in Part II of this Decision and Order, it is an undisputed fact that Plaintiff Johnson was subjected to force by Defendant Rose outside Anna's Restaurant on July 15, 2002, through the use of pepper spray; the only issue is whether the use of that force was excessive and unreasonable.

Generally, the Second Circuit has held that the use of pepper spray by an arresting officer "is not necessarily excessive force."*fn42 Such use rises to an excessive force only when the plaintiff shows "injuries from being sprayed with [pepper spray]--aside from the immediate discomfort."*fn43

Here, Plaintiff Johnson does not allege facts plausibly suggesting that he suffered injuries aside from the expected side effects, which are "temporary discomfort and disorientation."*fn44

(See Dkt. No. 1, ¶¶ 14-16 [Plfs.' Compl.].) In addition, although Plaintiff Johnson testified in his deposition that he sat in the paddy-wagon for "at least 45-50 . . . minutes . . . and was crying because of the burning in his eyes," he did not testify that he experienced any injuries other than the expected side effects of temporary discomfort and disorientation.Finally, Plaintiff Johnson testified that, at some point between his arrest at 12:00 A.M. and his booking at 2:40 A.M., he was "hosed . . . down" by one or more police officers in order to remove the pepper spray from his eyes, leaving him "soaking wet."

After carefully reviewing the record, and construing it in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds that there is no admissible record evidence from which a rational trier of fact could conclude that Defendant Rose subjected Plaintiff Johnson to excessive force on July 15, 2002.*fn45 Because the Court has concluded that adequate grounds exist upon which to dismiss Plaintiff Johnson's excessive force claim, it need not, and does not, reach the merits of Defendants' alternative argument for the dismissal of that claim, namely, their entitlement to qualified immunity.

C. Equal Protection

In one paragraph of their Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that they were treated in a "disparate and worse manner by the Defendants due to the impermissible consideration of their being African-American." (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 24 [Plfs.' Compl.].) Defendants did not specifically address this claim in their initial Memorandum of Law, although they requested the dismissal of Plaintiffs' Complaint in its entirety. (See generally Dkt. No. 32, Part 26.)

In their Opposition Memorandum of Law, Plaintiffs argue that the incident was "racially charged" because Plaintiffs attended a predominantly Caucasian establishment. (Dkt. No. 35, Part 1, at 11 [Plfs.' Opp. Mem. of Law].) Further, Plaintiffs argue that their Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection rights were violated because they were the only three individuals arrested on July 15, 2002, suggesting that they were targeted solely because of their race. (Id.)

In their Reply Memorandum of Law, Defendants specifically discuss Plaintiffs' equal protection claim. (See generally Dkt. No. 37, Part 2.) Defendants argue that Plaintiffs were arrested based upon the observations of Defendant Rose and the information he gathered outside Anna's Restaurant, not because Plaintiffs were African-American. (Id.) Further, Defendants argue that they could not arrest other parties because many dispersed upon Defendant Rose's arrival. (Id.)

To establish an equal protection claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) that he was selectively treated in comparison to other similarly situated people, and (2) that such selective treatment was based on impermissible considerations such as race, religion, intent to inhibit or punish the exercise of constitutional rights, or malicious or bad faith intent to injure a person. Caidor, 2006 WL 839547, at *4 [citations omitted]. Similarly, to establish a Fourteenth Amendment claim for selective enforcement, Plaintiffs must allege: (1) that similarly situated individuals of a different race were not arrested for disorderly conduct, thus creating a discriminatory effect in enforcement, and (2) the selective treatment was based on the impermissible considerations of race or national origin. Powell v. Bucci, 04-CV-1192, 2006 WL 2052159, at *9 (N.D.N.Y. July 21, 2006). "The test for determining whether persons similarly situated were selectively treated is whether a prudent person, looking objectively at the incidents, would think them roughly equivalent." Yajure v. DiMarzo, 130 F. Supp.2d 568, 572 (S.D.N.Y. 2001).

Here, as an initial matter, the Court finds that Plaintiffs' Complaint is so lacking in factual allegations plausibly suggesting a violation of their equal protection rights that their equal protection claim only barely survives dismissal under Fed. R. Civ. P. 8 and 12. As a result, the Court will proceed to the merits of Plaintiffs' claim. For the sake of argument, the Court will assume that Plaintiffs were "similarly situated" to the Caucasian individuals who were not arrested outside Anna's Restaurant on July 15, 2002.

In any event, the Court can find no admissible record evidence from which a rational fact finder could conclude that Defendant Rose arrested Plaintiffs because of their race. As an initial matter, it bears emphasizing that it is an undisputed fact that there were other African Americans who were patrons at, and employed by, Anna's Restaurant during the time in question. It is also an undisputed fact that James Quinn (who is Caucasian) was also pepper sprayed outside Anna's Restaurant at the time in question. Moreover, as described above in Parts III.A.1. to III.A.3. of this Decision and Order, the Court has concluded that the arrests of Plaintiffs were supported by probable cause.*fn46 As for why Caucasian culprits were not also arrested, it is an undisputed fact that, at approximately the time that the police arrived during the incident that ensued outside of Anna's Restaurant during the time in question, culprits started fleeing.

ACCORDINGLY, it is

ORDERED that Defendants' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 32) is GRANTED in its entirety, and Plaintiffs' Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) is DISMISSED.


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