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Cameron v. City of New York

March 10, 2010



Plaintiffs-Appellants Karen Cameron and Sylvia Higgenbottom appeal om an order granting judgment to Defendants-Appellees Carmen Ramos, Angel Rivera, and the City of New York following a jury verdict in Appellees' favor, in Appellants' suit for false arrest and malicious prosecution. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Paul A. Crotty, Judge) denied Appellants' post-trial motions for judgment as a matter of law or for a new trial. Although we AFFIRM the denial of the motion for judgment as a matter of law, we VACATE and REMAND the case for a new trial in light of improper opinion testimony as to Appellees' credibility, as to whether Appellees possessed probable cause, and as to how various evidence should be interpreted.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Calabresi, Circuit Judge

Argued: September 1, 2009

Before: CALABRESI, CABRANES, and HALL, Circuit Judges.

On July 2, 2005, Officers Carmen Ramos and Angel Rivera (along with the City of New York, "Appellees") arrested Karen Cameron and her mother, Sylvia Higgenbottom (together, "Appellants"), and charged Cameron with a variety of state law misdemeanors. According to Appellees, they did so because Cameron reached into their squad car, grabbed Ramos's shirt, and was otherwise disorderly, and because Higgenbottom interfered with their arrest of Cameron and was also disorderly. Appellants claim that they did no such things, and that Ramos and Rivera knowingly and maliciously fabricated a story to support the arrests of Cameron and Higgenbottom and the prosecution of Cameron. No criminal charges were filed against Higgenbottom, and, after a criminal trial in state court, Cameron was acquitted in full. Appellants subsequently sued in the District Court for the Southern District of New York (Crotty, J.), stating claims of false arrest, and in Cameron's case of malicious prosecution as well, against Ramos and Rivera, under both state law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Appellants also brought claims of respondeat superior liability and supervisory liability under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), against the City of New York.

After a week-long trial, a jury found for Appellees on all counts. That verdict cannot stand, however, because the jury was exposed to a significant amount of erroneously admitted and highly prejudicial testimony. Two Assistant District Attorneys ("ADAs") and a police lieutenant were allowed to give their opinions on Ramos's and Rivera's credibility, on whether probable cause existed to arrest or charge the Appellants, and on whether certain evidence strengthened or weakened Appellants' case. The admission of these statements violated bedrock principles of evidence law that prohibit witnesses (a) from vouching for other witnesses, (b) from testifying in the form of legal conclusions, and (c) from interpreting evidence that jurors can equally well analyze on their own. These errors were not harmless, not least because they allowed ostensibly neutral government agents to speak directly to the two most hotly contested issues in this case: Ramos's and Rivera's credibility, and whether Ramos and Rivera had probable cause for their actions. Accordingly, we vacate the jury verdict and remand for a new trial.

Appellants raise three other issues, as well.

First, they argue that Appellees' account of events was squarely contradicted by a series of photographs taken by a security camera at the scene. Appellants claim that these unimpeached pictures so "blatantly contradict[]" Appellees' story that Appellees' version of facts could not be accepted by a reasonable jury, and that Appellants are therefore entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Appellants' Br. 31. We disagree. The photographs do not definitively rule out either side's version of events, and hence the District Court correctly denied Appellants' motion for judgment as a matter of law.

Appellants' other two claims concern the instructions given to the jury. They argue (a) that the District Court should have instructed the jury that, under New York law, the offense of "obstructing governmental administration," for which Higgenbottom was arrested, requires that the obstructed officers be engaged in a lawful arrest, and (b) that Appellants' version of events would have allowed a jury to infer that Ramos and Rivera acted with malice, entitling them to a punitive damages instruction. Given that we are remanding for a new trial, we consider these arguments in the interest of judicial economy, and conclude that Appellants are correct on both counts. To the extent these issues recur at trial on remand, instructions similar to those that Appellants requested should therefore be given.


I. Factual Allegations

Because Appellants' evidentiary challenge requires us to review "everything . . . the jury considered on the issue in question," Hynes v. Coughlin, 79 F.3d 285, 291 (2d Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted), it is useful to lay out each side's case in some detail.

A. Appellants' Account of the Incident

Cameron and Higgenbottom both testified at trial. According to them, on the morning of July 2, 2005, Higgenbottom, Cameron's mother, noticed that the right front wheel of Cameron's car was up on the sidewalk outside their apartment complex. She called Cameron to tell her this, then drove away to get her own car washed. Cameron left her apartment to see the car, then called 911 at 10:12 a.m. to request a police incident report. At 10:23 a.m., she called 911 again to find out when the police would arrive. When she saw Ramos and Rivera drive by and stop a block away at 10:25 a.m., she called 911 a third time, to tell the officers where she was. The officers then made a U-turn and parked behind Cameron's car.

Rivera left the police car and inspected Cameron's car. Cameron requested an incident report, and discussed what had happened to her vehicle. Rivera said he would find out if he could prepare an incident report, and went back to his police car. At this point, Higgenbottom returned, parked in front of Cameron's car, and walked over to Cameron. The police car moved forward a few feet and Rivera rolled down the passenger-side window. Ramos was sitting in the passenger seat. Cameron walked over to the passenger-side window and leaned forward to discuss the possibility of getting an incident report. Her left hand was behind her back, holding two white shopping bags; she was gesturing with her right hand, but, Cameron alleges, her hand never entered the car or touched Ramos.

Ramos then yelled "get your hands off the car" twice and told Cameron that she was under arrest. Cameron responded by tossing her bags to the ground and putting her hands behind her back. She argued with the officers about the grounds for her arrest before submitting to handcuffing, and was placed in the police car. Rivera grabbed at her legs, so Cameron tried to "pull his hands off" her; she was then taken out of the police car for the handcuffs to be adjusted. Other than arguing about the grounds for arrest and trying to take Rivera's hands off her at that time, Cameron denies in any way resisting arrest.

Higgenbottom said that she heard Ramos say "get your hands off of the car" and saw Ramos and Rivera arrest Cameron. Higgenbottom then walked around the police car, and Rivera pushed her back; other than this, Higgenbottom denies any physical contact with either officer. Higgenbottom turned away from the arrest to go to her own car, get her cell phone, and call 911. When Higgenbottom returned with her cell phone, Ramos said "call your lawyer if you want to, call your lawyer" and "do you want to go with your girlfriend?" She then arrested Higgenbottom.

B. Appellees' Account of the Incident

Ramos and Rivera also testified. They claimed that, when they arrived at the scene, Cameron was "upset" and "loud," "looked like a homeless person," and had "white stuff" or "dry saliva" around her lips. J.A. 202, 281-82. She did not request an incident report, but rather wanted to know what towing agency had put her car on the curb. When Cameron approached the window, Rivera told her that he could fill out an incident report and asked for her license and registration, at which point "she lost it." J.A. 206. Rivera and Ramos testified that Cameron was gesturing with one or both hands inside the vehicle.*fn1 Ramos told Cameron twice to get her hands out of the car, at which point Cameron said "What, are you going to arrest me?" and grabbed Ramos's shirt. J.A. 325. Ramos and Rivera left the car to arrest Cameron, who was "struggling," "flailing her arms," and refusing to be handcuffed. J.A. 225. Cameron then opened the back door of the police car and jumped in; Ramos and Rivera did not at first notice this because they were distracted by Higgenbottom screaming "leave her alone, she is a DEA agent."*fn2 When they checked to see if Cameron was securely handcuffed, Cameron kicked, punched, and spat at the officers, who removed her from the car and re-handcuffed her.

According to Ramos and Rivera, Higgenbottom was yelling and screaming behind them during this time; Rivera "had to turn back to Ms. Higgenbottom over and over again to tell her to stand back," telling her this "about ten times." J.A. 233-35, 250-51. Otherwise, Ramos and Rivera testified, Higgenbottom made no contact with the officers and they did not have any verbal exchange with her before they arrested her.

C. Photographic Evidence

A security camera recorded the incident from some distance, taking photographs at two-second intervals. In the photographs, Cameron can be seen leaning toward the window of the police car, with her left hand behind her back, holding two shopping bags. Her right hand cannot be seen. After six to ten seconds in this position, Cameron stands up, turns her body away from the police car, throws her bags on the sidewalk, and puts her hands behind her back. Ramos and Rivera get out of the vehicle and approach Cameron. From this point on, it appears as though the officers are interacting with Cameron in some manner. Beyond this, it is difficult, if not impossible, to decipher from the photographic footage exactly what is happening. Higgenbottom appears to be standing near the officers until Cameron has entered the police car for the first time. At some point thereafter, Higgenbottom walks away from the police car, in the direction of her own car, and returns approximately twenty seconds later. She remains near the police car and can be seen standing near the officers for roughly thirty seconds after Cameron has apparently been put in the police car for a second time, after which the officers arrest Higgenbottom.

D. Post-Arrest Events

Lieutenant Norman Peterson arrived on the scene after the arrests. He spoke with Ramos and Rivera, who told him what had occurred. Based on their information, he determined that Cameron and Higgenbottom were not eligible for summonses or desk appearance tickets, but would instead need full arrest processing. He spoke with Cameron, and found her to be "coherent" and "calm and polite." J.A. 341. He then took Cameron to the stationhouse, and another officer brought Higgenbottom.

Rivera also went to the stationhouse, where he completed the online booking process for Cameron and Higgenbottom. In his online arrest form, he charged Cameron with harrassment, N.Y. Penal Law § 240.26, disorderly conduct, id. § 240.20, and resisting arrest, id. § 205.30. He charged Higgenbottom with obstructing governmental administration, id. § 195.05, and disorderly conduct. Later that day, he met with ADA Elizabeth Brandon of the Bronx District Attorney's Office, who prepared a Criminal Court Complaint charging Cameron with those offenses as well as attempted assault in the third degree, N.Y. Penal Law §§ 110, 120.00. Based on Rivera's information, Brandon decided not to prosecute Higgenbottom because she did not think the State would be able to prove a case against her.

According to Brandon, all of the information in the criminal complaint that was filed came from Rivera. Brandon's name appears nowhere on the complaint; rather, it says that "PO ANGEL RIVERA . . . states that . . . THE DEFENDANT COMMITTED THE OFFENSES" charged. J.A. 617. It is only signed by Rivera. The complaint states that any false statements made therein are punishable as misdemeanors. The complaint also states that Rivera was "informed by PO RAMOS, CARMEN . . . that, as a result of [Cameron's] actions, PO Ramos experienced annoyance and alarm and fear for her physical safety." Id. Ramos subsequently signed a supporting deposition stating that this information was true.

The charges against Cameron were adjudicated in a bench trial prosecuted by then-ADA Irene Pangilinan. At the close of this criminal trial, the ...

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