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Fudge v. Town of Shandaken Police

August 16, 2010

ERNEST H. FUDGE PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWN OF SHANDAKEN POLICE, DETECTIVE FRED HOLLAND, OFFICER IN CHARGE WILLIAM JAMES MCGRATH, POLICE OFFICER KRIS FRISENDA, DISTRICT ATTORNEY DONALD WILLIAMS, ADA TRACY STEEVES, GERALD VAN LOAN, AND DANA BLACKMON, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. McAVOY Senior United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

Plaintiff commenced the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C.§ 1983 asserting claims of false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and false arrest. Plaintiff's allegations are based on separate arrests for arson, harassment, assault and burglary. Presently before the Court are Defendants' motions for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 56 seeking dismissal of the Complaint in its entirety.

I. FACTS

The following facts are taken from Defendants' properly supported statements of material facts submitted pursuant to N.D.N.Y.L.R. 7.1(a)(3). Because Plaintiff has not submitted a proper counter-statement of material facts, the facts set forth in Defendants' statements of material facts are deemed to be true. See N.D.N.Y.L.R. 7.1(a)(3).*fn1

a. January 2006 Arson Investigation

On January 30, 2006, there was a fire at the Esopus Trailer Park in Phoenicia, New York. On that date, Defendant Detective Fred Holland and Defendant Officer-In-Charge James McGrath interviewed Crystal Evans, Joanne Winne and Patrick Wood. The witnesses independently gave signed, written statements indicating that Plaintiff had expressed to them that he was going to burn down Claudette Morgan's trailer. The witnesses also stated that Plaintiff was intoxicated, grabbed newspapers, and proceeded towards Morgan's trailer. Shortly thereafter, the witnesses saw flames and Plaintiff in the vicinity of the fire. During the investigation, the Ulster County Fire Investigator, Christopher Worrad, informed Detective Holland that he had ruled out all causes of accidental fire. Additionally, a K-9 unit alerted to the presence of accelerant on the Plaintiff's clothes. Based on this information, Holland arrested Plaintiff.

A Preliminary Hearing was conducted in the Town of Shandaken Justice Court to determine whether there was reasonable cause to suspect that Plaintiff had committed a felony. At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by an attorney. Plaintiff declined to present evidence or call witnesses. The court held that there was sufficient evidence suggesting reasonable cause to hold the Plaintiff on $50,000 bail and $100,000 bond for Grand Jury proceedings.

b. August 23, 2006 Harassment Investigation

On August 23, 2006, the owner of the Cobblestone Motel contacted the Town of Shandaken Police Departmenet reporting a confrontation. Defendant Police Officer Kris Frisenda responded to the motel and interviewed Joanne Winne. Winne told Officer Frisenda that she wanted a protective order against Plaintiff and wished to press charges. Frisenda returned to the police department where a written statement was prepared and signed by Winne. In her statement, Winne stated that Plaintiff "drove into the Cobblestone Motel parking lot in an apparently intoxicated condition, confronted the complainant and her boyfriend... and stated 'I'm going to beat the shit out of you again,' and then left the area...." Officer Frisenda then arrested Plaintiff and charged him with Harassment in the Second Degree.

c. September 7, 2006 Assault

On September 7, 2006, George Bolten and Michael Pampinella were assaulted by six men. Holland investigated the assault, including interviewing Bolten, Pampinella and other witnesses. Bolten provided a written statement identifying Plaintiff as one of the assailants. Bolten reported that Plaintiff approached him after the incident, introduced himself, and apologized. The other victim, Pampinella also identified Plaintiff as one of the men who attacked Bolton. Robin Pampinella, the victim's wife, also identified Plaintiff as being involved. Other witnesses provided information suggesting that Plaintiff was involved in a fight. For example, Andrew Brady told Holland that Plaintiff had come to him, expressed that he had just been in a fight and asked to hide out. Holland gathered the written statements and obtained a warrant for Plaintiff's arrest. Plaintiff was arrested and charged with Assault in the Third Degree.

d. October 27, 2006 Burglary

On October 25, 2006, the owner of the Phoenicia Wine & Liquors Store, Declan Feehan, reported that someone broke into the store and stole six bottles of Jack Daniels and four bottles of merlot wine. Two days later, Officer Ennist responded to a domestic dispute at the home of Beth Kuntz. Ms. Kuntz provided a tip that she believed her daughter, Crystal Cangley, was involved in the burglary. Holland and McGrath conducted a recorded interview of Crystal Cangley. Cangley stated that Plaintiff had walked towards the store with a screwdriver and returned with four bottles of Jack Daniels and three or four bottles of wine. Based on this information a warrant was issued for Plaintiff's arrested.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Defendants move for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56. Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures governs motions for summary judgment. It is well settled that on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, see Tenenbaum v. Williams, 193 F.3d 581, 593 (2d Cir. 1999), and may grant summary judgment only where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and... the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56( c). An issue is genuine if the relevant evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of informing the court of the basis for the motion and of identifying those portions of the record that the moving party believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact as to a dispositive issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the movant is able to establish a prima facie basis for summary judgment, the burden of production shifts to the party opposing summary judgment who must produce evidence establishing the existence of a factual dispute that a reasonable jury could resolve in his favor. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon "mere allegations or denials" asserted in his pleadings, Rexnord Holdings, Inc. v. Bidermann, 21 F.3d 522, 525-26 (2d Cir. 1994), or on conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated speculation. Scotto v. Almenas, 143 F.3d 105, 114 (2d Cir. 1998). With these standards in mind, the Court will address the pending motions.

III. DISCUSSION

a. Probable Cause and Qualified Immunity

Defendants move for summary judgment on the grounds that they acted with probable cause or, in the alternative, they are entitled to qualified immunity. "The 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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Amore v. Novarro, - F.3d -, -, 2010 WL 2490017, at *8 (2d Cir. 2010). "Probable cause exists if at the time of the arrest 'the facts and circumstances within th[e officer's] knowledge and of which [he] had reasonably trustworthy information were sufficient to warrant a prudent man in believing that the [suspect] had committed or was committing an offense.'" Amore, 2010 WL 2490017, at *8 (quoting Beck v. Ohio, 379 U.S. 89, 91, 85 S.Ct. 223 (1964)). Probable cause must be evaluated based on totality of the circumstances, Jenkins v. City of New York, 478 F.3d 76, 90 (2d Cir. 2007), in light of the facts available to the arresting officer at the time of the arrest. Ricciuti v. N.Y.C. Transit Authority, 124 F.3d 123, 128 (2d Cir. 1997). Police officers may have probable cause to arrest even if the information used as the basis of that arrest is mistaken, as long as it was reasonable for the officer to rely on that information. Bernard v. United States, 25 F.3d 98, 103 (2d Cir. 1994). Moreover, "it is well-established that a law enforcement official has probable cause to arrest if he received his information from... the putative victim or eyewitness." Martinez v. Simonetti, 202 F.3d 625, 634 (2d Cir. 2000) (citing Miloslavsky v. AES Eng'g Soc'y, 808 F.Supp. 351, 355 (S.D.N.Y.1992), aff'd 3 F.2d 1534 (2d Cir.1993)). Police officers have probable cause to arrest if a person who purports to be the victim has signed a complaint or information charging someone with the crime unless there are facts that cast doubt on the veracity of that complaint. Singer v. Fulton County Sheriff, 63 F.3d 110, 119 (2d Cir. 1995). Veracity is assumed and the burden to disprove it falls on the arrestee. Miloslavsky, 808 F. Supp. at 355 (finding that probable cause existed where officers relied on a witness complaint along with disruptive behavior exhibited by plaintiff). Police officers are not required to investigate every source of exculpatory evidence before establishing probable cause to arrest. See Walczyk v. Rio, 496 F.3d 139, 160 (2d Cir. 2007); Gleis v. Buehler, 2010 WL 1647446, at *2 (2d Cir 2010) (summary order) (omission of reference to potentially exculpatory surveillance video in warrant application did not negate probable cause). It is immaterial whether further investigation may cast doubt on the basis for arrest. Krause v. Bennett, 887 F.2d 362, 372 (2d Cir. 1989). At the same time, officers "may not disregard plainly exculpatory evidence." Panetta v. Crowley, 460 F.3d 388, 394 (2d Cir. 2006). One such source that officers need not further investigate includes the arrestee's protestations of innocence. Curley v. Village of Suffern, 268 F.3d 65, 70 (2d Cir. 2001) (finding that the fact that the arrestee's account conflicted with the victim's did not negate probable cause, although witnesses collaborated the arrestee's story).

In situations in which officers have obtained arrest warrants, a presumption arises that the arrest was made with probable cause. Walczyk v. Rio, 496 F.3d 139, 156 (2d Cir. 2007). The presumption can be overcome, however, if a plaintiff can demonstrate that a defendant "'knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, made a false statement in his affidavit' or omitted material information, and that such false or omitted information was 'necessary to the finding of probable cause.'" Soares v. Connecticut, 8 F.3d 917, 920 (2d Cir.1993) (quoting Golino v. City of New Haven, 950 F.2d 864, 870 (2d Cir. 1991)). In instances of false or omitted information, a court should put aside allegedly false material, supply any omitted information, and then determine whether the contents of the 'corrected affidavit' would have supported a finding of probable cause. If probable cause remains, no constitutional violation of the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights has occurred.

Id. (citations omitted).

Police officers acting in their official capacity are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity for suits arising from § 1983 if "(a) the defendant's action did not violate clearly established law, or (b) it was objectively reasonable for the defendant to believe that his action did not violate such law. The objective reasonableness test is met if officers of reasonable competence could disagree on the legality of the defendant's actions." Kent v. Katz, 312 F.3d 568, 573 (2d Cir. 2002) (citations omitted); Thomas v. Roach, 165 F.3d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1999); Salim v. Proulx, 93 F.3d 86, 89 (2d. Cir. 1996). This is also referred to as "arguable probable cause." Amore, 2010 WL 2490017, at *8. "In deciding whether an officer's conduct was 'objectively reasonable' for purposes of qualified immunity, we look to the information possessed by the officer at the time of the arrest, but 'we do not consider the subjective intent, motives, or beliefs' of the officer." Id. (quoting Conn. ex rel. Blumenthal v. Crotty, 346 F.3d 84, 106 (2d Cir. ...


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