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Robertson v. Sullivan

May 12, 2010

DWAYNE KINTE ROBERTSON, PLAINTIFF,
v.
OFFICER MATTHEW SULLIVAN, SHIELD #29723; OFFICER NILES PRINCE, SHIELD #22353, AND SERGEANT DIMITRI DEGLAS, SHIELD #01647, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John Gleeson, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

This simple case arose out of a routine street encounter between a citizen and the police. It occurred late at night in an industrial neighborhood, so there was no one around other than the plaintiff, Dwayne Kinte Robertson, and the three defendants, Detectives Niles Prince and Matthew Sullivan and Sergeant Dimitri Deglas. Robertson said the three officers pulled up beside him in their unmarked car and wanted to speak to him. He declined, saying "No thanks, I'm good," and kept walking. According to Robertson, the officers asked again, more insistent this time, and he again declined. The officers did not take kindly to that response, Robertson testified. One of them, Detective Prince, got out of the car, annoyed, and in a threatening manner ordered Robertson to stop. Robertson took off instead, causing Prince to chase him on foot and the others to follow in the car. Prince finally tackled Robertson and subdued him. While Robertson was still on the ground, handcuffed behind his back, Deglas approached him, flicked open his extendable baton and cracked Robertson across the forehead with the baton, opening up a cut above the left eyebrow that bled profusely. Robertson, who had been arrested many times before, asked Deglas if the baton blow was really called for, being that he was already handcuffed and on the ground. According to Robertson, Deglas responded, "Oh, come on, you caused my boys to run. Now you're leaking," referring to the blood. To camouflage their illegal stop and unlawful use of force, Robertson testified, the officers fabricated a case against him, claiming they had seen (and smelled) him with marijuana and charging him with resisting arrest. Those charges died on the vine in the state court, essentially abandoned by the prosecutor.

For their part, the defendant officers gave testimony that, if believed, would have established that there was reasonable suspicion to stop Robertson to investigate whether he possessed marijuana, that there was probable cause to arrest Robertson for possessing marijuana, and that Deglas's baton was used only to strike the back of Robertson's legs to subdue him when he resisted arrest. The jury did not believe the officers' testimony, no doubt because it was rife with inconsistencies and anomalies. The jury found that the initial stop before the chase was unlawful (that is, was unsupported by even a suspicion of criminal activity), that the ensuing arrest was not supported by probable cause, that Robertson was hit in the forehead with a baton after he was subdued and in handcuffs, that the officers initiated a malicious prosecution of Robertson to camouflage their own misbehavior, and that they acted with sufficient malice and indifference to his constitutional rights to warrant punitive relief in addition to compensatory relief. Specifically, the jury awarded Robertson $5,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.

The defendants now move for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, for a new trial. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is denied.

DISCUSSION

A. The Defendants' Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

The defendants argue that, as a matter of law, they are entitled to qualified immunity on all of Robertson's claims. A police officer sued under § 1983 is entitled to qualified immunity if (a) his conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, or (2) even if the law and the scope of the defendant's permissible conduct were both clearly established, it was nonetheless objectively reasonable for the officer to believe (albeit incorrectly) that his actions were lawful. Taravella v. Town of Wolcott, 599 F.3d 129, 133-35 (2d Cir. 2010).

Whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity is a question for the court, not the jury, and the defendants do not contend otherwise. See Tr. 470 (Defense Counsel: "[Q]ualified immunity should be reserved for the court to decide after the jury returns with the facts decided."). If the material historical facts are in dispute, as was the case here, the qualified immunity decision can be made only after a jury has resolved the disputed facts. Zellner v. Summerlin, 494 F.3d 344, 368 (2d Cir. 2007).

Though the reasonableness inquiry at the heart of the qualified immunity analysis is distinct from the reasonableness inquiry under the Fourth Amendment,*fn1 they frequently coalesce. In other words, where there is a stark factual dispute about what happened, the merits of the a plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim and the defendant's claim of qualified immunity can both ride on whether the jury believes the plaintiff or the defendant.

That was the case here. As defense counsel put it during his summation, Robertson was "asking [the jury] to believe his word over the word of these three police officers." Tr. 519. Thus, with regard to Robertson's claim that the initial stop was an unlawful seizure, the jury needed to credit either Robertson's testimony that he was doing nothing wrong and was stopped solely because he declined to speak to the police or the defendants' claim "that they had a reasonable suspicion that Mr. Robertson was smoking a marijuana cigarette at the time they initially stopped him." Tr. 545 (jury charge). The jury rejected the defendants' testimony. See Verdict Sheet (Claim 1). Since the reasonableness of their conduct -- both under the Fourth Amendment and for the purposes of qualified immunity -- depended on the truth of their claim that they saw (or smelled) Robertson smoking marijuana, the verdict defeats the defendants' claim of qualified immunity.

Similarly, the defendants' qualified immunity defense with regard to the false arrest and malicious prosecution claims, like their Fourth Amendment positions on those subjects, depended on their factual claims that (a) they had at least a reasonable suspicion that Robertson was in possession of marijuana, and when they sought to investigate he bolted; or (b) they actually observed (or smelled) him smoking marijuana, giving them probable cause to arrest. Tr. 546 (jury charge). The jury's verdicts rejected those claims. See Verdict Sheet (Claim 2). No reasonable officer could believe that the arrest was lawful in the absence of even a suspicion of criminal activity, and thus the defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity.

Robertson's constitutional claim regarding excessive force depended on the jury believing his testimony that he was struck in the forehead with a baton while handcuffed (in retaliation for making the officers run) over the defendants' claims that he was stuck only on the back of the legs while resisting arrest. Once the jury accepted Robertson's testimony, the qualified immunity defense was extinguished as well, for their claim of objectively reasonable behavior depended on the truth of the testimony the jury rejected.*fn2

Before trial and throughout the trial itself, at least until the jury returned its verdicts, the defendants were in agreement with the foregoing view that, in the circumstances of this case, the merits of the § 1983 claims and the defense of qualified immunity coalesced, that is, they depended on the same findings by the jury. At the oral argument on the defense motion for summary judgment, I expressed my view that "the qualified immunity argument collapses with the merits," and defense counsel agreed. 10/2/09 Oral Arg. Tr. at 11. I also observed at that time that there could be some factual "nuances" bearing on the qualified immunity defense about which additional jury findings might also be necessary, envisioning the possibility of obtaining both general verdicts from the jury as well as answers to written interrogatories. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 49(b).*fn3 No such need occurred to me at trial, and none was brought to my attention by the parties before the summations, the jury instructions and the announcement of the jury's verdicts.

After those verdicts were announced, defense counsel approached the sidebar and asked, for the first time, that I submit to the jury forty-six written special interrogatories set forth in a seven-page document. My denial of this unorthodox request is one basis of the defendants' motion ...


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