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Shaundel Smith and Frank Smith v. the City of Syracuse

January 31, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCURN, Senior District Court Judge


Plaintiffs Shaundel Smith ("Shaundel") and Frank Smith ("Frank") (collectively, "plaintiffs") bring this action seeking monetary and declaratory relief against the City of Syracuse ("City"), Detective Thomas Skardinski ("Skardinski"), Detective Sean Lynch (Lynch"), Detective George Hack ("Hack"), Sergeant Edward Taglialatela ("Taglialatela"), Detective Steven Kilburn ("Kilburn"), Detective Edward MacBlane (MacBlane"), Lieutenant Conley ("Conley"), Detective Patrick DeCastro ("DeCastro"), all individually and in their official capacities, (collectively, "defendants").

Plaintiffs seek redress for alleged violations of their civil rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 and the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and the laws of the State of New York. Plaintiffs allege, inter alia, that defendants subjected Shaundel to an illegal search of his person and home, an illegal seizure of his person, unlawful arrest, false imprisonment, illegal detention, excessive force, medical neglect, harassment, humiliation and intimidation. Plaintiffs allege that defendants subjected Frank to an illegal search of his person and home, unlawful arrest, false imprisonment, illegal detention, excessive force, harassment, humiliation and intimidation. Plaintiffs seek compensatory damages to be assessed against all defendants and punitive damages against the police officer defendants in their individual capacities, together with the costs and disbursements of this action.

The court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1988 and 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1331, 1343 and 1367. Currently before the court is defendants' motion for summary judgment (Doc. No. 29) pursuant to Rule 56(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn1 For the reasons stated below, the motion for summary judgment is denied in its entirety.

I. Facts and Procedural History

The following facts are taken from the plaintiffs' amended complaint and sworn deposition testimony.*fn2 Plaintiffs Shaundel and Frank Smith are brothers, and at all times relevant to this action, these young African-American males lived together in an apartment in DeWitt, NY. Frank graduated from Keuka College with a degree in criminal justice and at the time of his deposition was one class short of obtaining a master's degree in criminal justice administration. At the time of the incident giving rise to this action, Frank was employed as a health service specialist with the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, NY, and was an HIV and AIDS educator in five of the state correctional facilities. Shaundel pursued a bachelor's degree in fine arts on Long Island, NY. He states that he completed three years of college, and at the time of deposition, intended to complete his degree. At all times relevant to this action, Shaundel was employed as a dishwasher at the Renaissance Hotel in Syracuse, NY. Deposition testimony reveals that neither of these young men had a criminal history.

On November 5, 2008, a young man named Khalic Pitts was shot and killed in the City of Syracuse. In the course of the subsequent police investigation, a confidential informer told police detectives that plaintiff Shaundel Smith was a witness to the shooting. Shaundel had attended junior high school with the shooting victim. Shaundel testifies in his deposition that he had been in the vicinity of the shooting earlier in the evening, and did in fact see Mr. Pitts at a restaurant on Westcott Street. Shaundel asserts that he had continued on to a friend's house after seeing Pitts, and did not witness the shooting that occurred approximately two hours later, but later heard about the shooting on the television news.

After the Pitts murder, defendants followed up on the information provided by the informant. On November 12, 2008, defendants Skardinski and Lynch were assigned to interview Shaundel. At approximately 6:00 p.m. that evening, Frank had returned home to his apartment in DeWitt, and had fallen asleep when he heard someone knocking at his door. Through the peephole on his door, Frank saw two individuals standing there. They identified themselves as police officers and said they were looking for Shaundel.*fn3 Frank told them that Shaundel was not at home, and the officers left a business card, with the admonition for Frank to tell Shaundel they needed to talk to him.

Frank went back to sleep and some time later, after Shaundel had returned home from work, was again awakened by police officers banging on the apartment door. Shaundel had worked until midnight, and had returned home at approximately 12:15 a.m. on November 13, 2008. He arrived at the apartment he shared with Frank by walking through a wooded area, after being dropped off by a friend on a road adjoining the street he lived on. Shaundel was approached from the vicinity of the parking lot by two unidentified men (subsequently identified as defendants Skardinski and Lynch) who shouted that they wanted to speak to Shaundel. Not knowing the men, Shaundel continued on and entered the apartment. Once Shaundel entered the apartment, the two defendants allegedly tried to enter the apartment by turning the door knob. Plaintiffs allege that Skardinski and Lynch insisted that plaintiffs open the door, and continued to pound on the door, attempting to gain entry. Plaintiffs soon began to hear more defendants outside of the apartment door. Plaintiffs allege that defendants directed their flashlight beams into a bedroom window, and became increasingly loud, threatening to go get a warrant if plaintiffs did not open the door, and also shouting that they had an arrest warrant for Shaundel. Plaintiffs allege that the defendants used profanity and threats in an attempt to intimidate the plaintiffs into opening the door.

Plaintiffs allege that defendants requested a key from a maintenance worker who lived upstairs in the same apartment building. Defendants then attempted to gain entry with the key, but plaintiffs thwarted that attempt by grasping the lock from inside of the apartment. Plaintiffs allege that the banging on the door and yelling became louder and more disturbing. The officers allegedly told Frank that he was also going to be arrested for obstructing governmental administration. Upon assurances by the defendants that they only wanted to talk to Shaundel, plaintiffs opened the door. Plaintiffs allege that once the door was opened, the defendants entered the apartment with weapons drawn, and one defendant pushed a gun into Shaundel's side. Plaintiffs allege that they were ordered to the floor where they were handcuffed, while defendants searched the premises, including the kitchen, bathroom, and the bedrooms of both plaintiffs. After the plaintiffs were taken outside, several defendants allegedly remained in the apartment and continued their search, without benefit of a warrant or permission from the plaintiffs.

Frank was taken from his house wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts. On the ride to the Syracuse Public Safety Building ("PSB"), Frank asked that the cuffs be loosened as they were too tight. The officers refused, and when they reached the PSB, Frank was taken into a room and handcuffed to a metal bar, where he remained for approximately one hour. At that time, the handcuffs were removed and Frank was taken to another room where he was interrogated for two or three hours and then released without being charged. Prior to his release, Frank alleges that he was made to apologize to the officers for being disrespectful, which he states he did to facilitate his release, and his apology was met with laughter. He asked for and was given a ride home by the two officers who had transported him to the PSB.

Shaundel was questioned about the Pitts homicide, with the defendants alleging that Shaundel witnessed the homicide. Defendants forced Shaundel to view pictures of his deceased friend. The pictures showed the decedent on the operating table and showed the bullet wounds in the deceased's body. Shaundel asserts that he was shown the photographs continuously, and found them to be shocking, causing him extreme emotional distress.

When Shaundel had not returned home by the morning of November 14, Frank retained an attorney for his brother. Plaintiffs allege that defendants refused to cooperate with Shaundel's attorney and even denied that he was in custody. Shaundel was allegedly denied access to his attorney. When Frank returned home from work on the afternoon of November 14, he learned that Shaundel had been released from the PSB at approximately 12:30 p.m., had met with his attorney, and had then returned to the home the brothers shared.

Shaundel alleges that while he remained in defendants' custody until Friday, November 14, he was denied adequate food, beverage and medication. Shaundel suffers from vertigo*fn4 and was prescribed medicine for that ailment. That medicine was left behind at his home when Shaundel was taken into custody. In addition, Shaundel alleges that he was confined to an area that was extremely hot and uncomfortable. In a perceived attempt to pressure Shaundel into signing a statement that he witnessed the homicide of his friend, defendants allegedly threatened Shaundel with arrest, that they would tell the homicide victim's family that Shaundel was involved in the death of the victim, and that defendants would lock Shaundel in the same unit as the suspect who was in custody for the homicide. After several hours of continuous interrogation with no sleep, and while suffering from vertigo without being given his prescribed medication, coupled with the threats outlined above, Shaundel asserts that he told defendant Hack that he would sign a statement that he witnessed the shooting of Pitts. Hack allegedly crafted a statement which Shaundel signed, at which point Shaundel was allowed to sleep. When Shaundel awoke, he immediately recanted his story and advised Hack that he would not testify before a grand jury.

Shaundel was released from custody on November 14, 2009 without being charged with any crime. Defendants allegedly continued to harass Shaundel after his release by going to his place of employment to ask questions, harassing him when they saw him on the street and continuing to intimidate him.

Plaintiffs filed a Notice of Claim with the City within 90 days of the incident. A 50-h hearing was held, and subsequent to the 50-h hearing, defendants made no offer of payment. This action followed. Plaintiffs' amended complaint alleges nine causes of action. ...

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