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Timmy Williams v. the City of New York

February 15, 2012


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


In this action, Plaintiff Timmy Williams asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and New York state law for false arrest, false imprisonment, unreasonable seizure, malicious prosecution and battery against the City of New York and several officers of the New York City Police Department. The Defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

BACKGROUND A. Factual Background

In the early morning hours of August 16, 2008, Bernabe Rivera was shot and killed outside of Club Sputnik, a nightclub in Brooklyn. Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 3, ECF No. 25. Williams had been present at Club Sputnik and had socialized with Rivera shortly before his death. Williams Aff. ¶ 5, ECF No. 29. However, Williams has consistently denied having anything to do with Rivera's murder.

An eyewitness, referred to by the Defendants as "R.S.," told Detective Steven Sneider that he had seen a tall, stocky, black male wearing a baseball cap and a white t-shirt approach Rivera. Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶¶ 7--8; Zeldin Decl., Ex. Q, ECF No. 24. According to R.S., there was then a muzzle flash and a gunshot, and the person in the cap and t-shirt fled the scene. Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 8.

Sneider prepared a photo array consisting of separate photos of Williams and seven other men wearing white t-shirts and "posing for photos in a party like atmosphere." Id. ¶ 9. R.S. viewed the photo array on September 2, 2008. Id. ¶ 10. R.S. said either that the photo of Williams "looks like the guy he saw the night of the shooting" Zeldin Decl., Ex. J, or that he "looks the most like" the shooter, Kunz Decl., Ex. U at 217, ECF No. 28. He also told Sneider that "he remember[ed] the face and the guy had a long face." Zeldin Decl., Ex. J. He added that "[h]e would need to see the guy in person to be to tally [sic] sure." Id.

Approximately six months later, on March 6, 2009, Sneider arrested Williams at his home. Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 12. Later that day, a second eyewitness, referred to as "E.M.," viewed a lineup and identified Williams as the shooter. See Zeldin Decl., Ex. O; see also Kunz Decl., Ex. R at 23. On the following day, March 7, 2009, R.S. also viewed a lineup and identified Williams as the shooter. See Zeldin Decl., Ex. P; see also Kunz Decl., Ex. R at 26. That same day, Sneider signed a criminal court complaint charging Williams with Rivera's murder. Zeldin Decl., Ex. M.

On March 27, 2009, Williams was indicted by a grand jury for murder in the second degree and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. See Zeldin Decl., Ex. F. On April 28, 2010, after a trial by jury, he was acquitted of all charges. See Zeldin Decl., Ex. G; Defs. Rule 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 19.

B. Procedural Background

Williams commenced this action on June 11, 2010. He asserts claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law for false arrest, false imprisonment, unreasonable seizure and malicious prosecution. He also asserts a state law claim for battery, arising from an injury to his forehead that he suffered during his arrest. After discovery concluded, the Defendants moved for summary judgment on December 2, 2011. The Court heard oral argument on February 10, 2012.


A. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate only when it is clear that "there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Novella v. Westchester Cnty., 661 F.3d 128, 139--40 (2d Cir. 2011); Wilson v. Nw. Mut. Ins. Co., 625 F.3d 54, 60 (2d Cir. 2010); Padilla v. Manlapaz, 643 F. Supp. 2d 302, 306 (E.D.N.Y. 2009). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, a court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in its favor. Serricchio v. Wachovia Secs. LLC, 658 F.3d 169, 179 (2d Cir. 2011).

B. Analysis

Although Williams's claims for false arrest*fn1 and malicious prosecution have different elements, probable cause is central to both. If there was probable cause to believe that Williams had shot Rivera, then these claims cannot proceed. See, e.g., Savino v. City of New York, 331 F.3d 63, 72, 75 (2d Cir. 2003) (probable cause is a complete defense to a malicious prosecution claim under New York law or under § 1983); Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 852 (2d Cir. 1996) ("The existence of probable cause to arrest . . . is a complete defense to an action for false arrest, whether that action is brought under state law or under § 1983." (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)).

Probable cause for an arrest exists when an officer has "knowledge of, or reasonably trustworthy information as to, facts and circumstances that are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that an offense has been or is being committed by the person to be arrested." Manganiello v. City of New York, 612 F.3d 149, 161 (2d Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); see also Savino, 331 F.3d at 76. Although "probable cause does not demand the certainty we associate with formal trials," Massachusetts v. Upton, 466 U.S. 727, 734 (1984) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted); see also Krause v. Bennett, 887 F.2d 362, 370--71 (2d Cir. 1989), it must rest on "more than rumor, suspicion, or even a 'strong reason to suspect.'" United States v. Fisher, 702 F.2d 372, 375 (2d Cir. 1983) (quoting Henry v. United States, 361 U.S. 98, 101 (1959)) (other internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The inquiry is an objective one, and "an arresting officer's state of mind (except for the facts that he knows) is irrelevant to the existence of probable cause." Devenpeck v. Alford, 543 U.S. 146, 153 (2004).

Even if probable cause were lacking, summary judgment might still be appropriate if the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity. "Qualified immunity shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was 'clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct." Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. 2074, 2080 (2011).

"The right not to be arrested or prosecuted without probable cause has, of course, long been a clearly established constitutional right." Golino v. City of New Haven, 950 F.2d 864, 870 (2d Cir. 1991). Defining the right at this "high level of generality," however, "is of little help in determining whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established." Al-Kidd, 131 S. Ct. at 2084.The appropriate inquiry is whether there was "arguable probable cause" under the particular facts and circumstances, i.e., whether "(a) it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that probable cause existed, or (b) officers of reasonable competence could disagree on whether the probable cause test was met." Amore v. Novarro, ...

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