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David A. Brown v. Ontario County

May 27, 2011

DAVID A. BROWN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ONTARIO COUNTY, ONTARIO COUNTY DEPUTY KATHLEEN HABBERFIELD, INVESTIGATOR MATT PEONE, ONTARIO COUNTY SHERIFF PHIL PROVERO,
DISTRICT ATTORNEY MIKE TANTILLO, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: David G. Larimer United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff David Brown ("Brown"), proceeding pro se, bring this action against defendants Ontario County (the "County"), Ontario County Sheriff Phil Povero (the "Sheriff"), Deputy Kathleen Habberfield ("Habberfield"), Investigator Matt Peone ("Peone"), and District Attorney Mike Tantillo ("Tantillo") (collectively "defendants"). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 ("Section 1983"), plaintiff alleges that the individual defendants, acting in their official capacities as County employees, falsely arrested and imprisoned plaintiff and subjected him to malicious prosecution, engaged in racial profiling and otherwise violated his constitutional rights.

The pertinent facts are largely undisputed, and defendants now move for summary judgment pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 56 to dismiss plaintiff's claims, on the grounds that they had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff, and in any event, are entitled to absolute or qualified immunity. For the reasons set forth below, the defendants' motion to dismiss (Dkt. #22) is granted, and the complaint is dismissed.

DISCUSSION

I. Summary Judgment

Summary judgment is granted if the record demonstrates that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). See also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986). "When the moving party has carried its burden under Rule 56(c), its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts. . . . Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no 'genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-587 (1986).

Where, as here, the parties opposing summary judgment are proceeding pro se, the Court must "read the pleadings ... liberally and interpret them to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Corcoran v. New York Power Auth., 202 F.3d 530, 536 (2d Cir.1999). Nevertheless, "proceeding pro se does not otherwise relieve [an opposing party] from the usual requirements of summary judgment." Fitzpatrick v. N.Y. Cornell Hosp., 2002 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 25166 at *5 (S.D.N.Y. 2003). Those requirements include the obligation not to rest upon mere conclusory allegations or denials, but instead to set forth "concrete particulars" showing that a trial is needed. R.G. Group, Inc. v. Horn & Hardart Co., 751 F.2d 69, 77 (2d Cir. 1984).

II. Plaintiff's Claims of False Arrest and Malicious Prosecution Pursuant to Section 1983

In order to maintain his claims for false arrest and malicious prosecution under Section 1983, plaintiff must show that the defendants violated his Constitutional or federal statutory rights -- here, his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures -- and that defendants did so while acting under color of state law. See Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981).

To establish a claim of false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, or a violation of civil rights arising therefrom, a plaintiff must prove that the underlying arrest lacked probable cause. Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir. 1996). As such, the existence of probable cause is "a complete defense to [a civil rights action arising from an arrest]," whether brought under state law or Section 1983. Bernard v. United States, 25 F.3d 98, 102 (2d Cir. 1994). See also Crenshaw v. City of Mount Vernon, 372 Fed. Appx. 202, 206 n.2 (2d Cir. 2010) ("[t]he existence of probable cause is . . . a defense to a malicious prosecution claim under Section 1983"); Manganiello v. City of New York, 612 F.3d 149, 161-162 (2d Cir. 2010) (same).

Although an arrest may not be grounded solely on a "hunch," United States v. Patrick, 899 F.2d 169, 174 (2d Cir. 1990), "a probable cause determination does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt; it is the mere probability of criminal activity, based on the totality of the circumstances, that satisfies the Fourth Amendment." Donovan v. Briggs, 250 F. Supp. 2d 242, 251 (W.D.N.Y. 2003), quoting Hahn v. County of Otsego, 820 F. Supp. 54, 55 (N.D.N.Y. 1993). Thus, it has been observed that, "the standard for establishing probable cause is not a particularly stringent one. It does not require proof of a suspect's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, probable cause to arrest exists when the known facts 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.'" Donovan, 250 F. Supp. 2d 242 at 253, quoting Jocks v. Tavernier, 316 F.3d 128 at 135 (2d Cir. 2003)(emphasis in original). See also Loria v. Gorman, 306 F.3d 1271, 1288-89 (2d Cir. 2002) ("probable cause is an assessment of probabilities, not an ascertainment of truths").

Here, plaintiff's arrest took place in the early morning hours of April 3, 2008, after Detective Habberfield observed plaintiff standing in front of an open storage unit at a rental facility, wearing black gloves despite the mild weather, and carrying a screwdriver and flashlight. A large set of bolt cutters was in plain view on top of the trunk of plaintiff's nearby car, and tires and rims that had been removed from the storage units were in plain view in the backseat. A Mr. Frost, the tenant of the rental unit, was summoned, and identified the tires and rims in plaintiff's back seat as his. Frost also denied that anyone had permission to enter the two units he rented or to remove items therefrom. Plaintiff was thereafter arrested, and his vehicle impounded. Upon execution of a search warrant for the vehicle, police discovered the tires and rims that had been stolen from the storage units, as well as a chain with a Master padlock, a lock pick tool set, hammer, and hacksaw.

It is clear that the conduct in which plaintiff was observed, as well as the location and time of day, and the stolen items and burglar's tools that were observable in his possession at the time of his arrest, together provided a sufficient evidentiary basis for the crimes for which he was arrested, N.Y. Penal Law §140.20 (burglary in the third degree) and §140-35 (possession of burglar's tools). Although plaintiff protests that the arresting officers should have pursued other avenues to explain the circumstances they observed, and vaguely claims that the defendants manipulated the crime scene in some way, plaintiff offers no evidence of this, and the defendants refute it. Furthermore, "the police [are] not required to explore and eliminate every potentially plausible claim of innocence as part of their pre-arrest investigation." Ricciuti v. New York City Transit Auth., 1254 F.3d 123, 128 (2d Cir. ...


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