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Maliek Keller v. P.O. Barbara Sobolewski

October 12, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Block, Senior District Judge:


Plaintiff Maliek Keller has filed suit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 alleging that Defendants Police Officer Barbara Sobolewski ("Sobolewski") and Sergeant Jwann Layton ("Layton") violated his civil rights in connection with his arrest and subsequent prosecution. Plaintiff's § 1983 claims include: (1) deprivation of civil rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; (2) false arrest; (3) deprivation of the right to a fair trial; and (4) unlawful and unreasonable search.*fn1 Defendants move for partial summary judgment as to the first three counts. For the reasons given below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.


The following facts, taken from the parties' Rule 56.1 statements, are undisputed unless otherwise noted. Where disputed, they are presented in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Fed. Ins. Co. v. Am. Home Assurance Co., 639 F.3d 557, 566 (2d Cir. 2011).

While on a lunch break from work at the New York City Justice Corps in Brooklyn, plaintiff walked across the street to buy food. Upon making a purchase from the corner store and returning to his work at the community center, he was detained and arrested by defendants on suspicion of drug-related activity. According to Officer Sobolewski, prior to the arrest she had observed the plaintiff purchase marijuana from an unknown party in the vicinity of Lexington Avenue between Nostrand Avenue and Marcy Avenue, then discard the drugs into a nearby storm drain after he purportedly observed her patrol car approaching. Upon making this observation, Officer Sobolewski radioed to her team a description of the perpetrator as a "male, black, khaki pants, light-colored shirt," whereupon Sergeant Layton and non-party Police Officer Eddie Martins stopped plaintiff and Officer Sobolewski subsequently placed him under arrest. Officer Sobolewski then confirmed to her fellow officers that the plaintiff had been observed making a drug transaction, whereupon Sergeant Layton verified the arrest. Plaintiff was transported to the local precinct where he was strip searched and spent thirty-five hours in custody. No drugs were recovered from either the plaintiff or the site. Plaintiff was thereafter charged with attempted tampering with physical evidence and obstructing governmental administration. However, prior to initiating the present litigation he accepted an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal ("ACD") on the charges. The ACD became final six months later, rendering the criminal matter dismissed. Plaintiff denies that he ever purchased, possessed, or disposed of the drugs described, and contends that Officer Sobolewski neither observed him nor any other individual engage in the alleged drug transactions.


A. Deprivation of Civil Rights Under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments

Defendants first assert that they are entitled to summary judgment on count one alleging a general deprivation of federal civil rights. They argue that since the plaintiff's § 1983 claims are tethered to specific constitutional violations in subsequent counts, this general claim for deprivation of the rights afforded by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments is merely duplicative of these counts. Plaintiff does not contest this assertion. The Court agrees with the defendants and dismisses count one as academic. See Sykes v. James, 13 F.3d 515, 519 (2d Cir. 1993) ("Section 1983 itself creates no substantive rights; it provides only a procedure for redress for the deprivation of rights established elsewhere.").

B. False Arrest

Defendants next argue that they are entitled to summary judgment on plaintiff's false arrest claim because both Officer Sobolewski and Sergeant Layton are protected by qualified immunity. The Court finds that Officer Sobolewski is not entitled to qualified immunity, while Sergeant Layton is entitled to such protection.

1. Qualified Immunity-Officer Sobolewski

"Qualified immunity shields government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Lennon v. Miller, 66 F.3d 416, 420 (2d Cir. 1995). In the context of a false arrest claim, an official is protected by the doctrine "if it was objectively reasonable for the officer to believe that there was probable cause to make the arrest, or [] if reasonably competent police officers could disagree as to whether there was probable cause to arrest." Petway v. City of New York, 2012 WL 2254246, at *6 (E.D.N.Y. June 14, 2012) (citing Ricciuti v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 124 F.3d 123, 128 (2d Cir. 1997)). Qualified immunity must be denied on summary judgment "if any reasonable trier of fact could find that the defendants' actions were objectively unreasonable . . . [or] when no officer of reasonable competence could have made the same choice in similar circumstances." Lennon, 66 F.3d at 420-21 (citing Malley v. Briggs, 475 U.S. 335, 340-41 (1986)). Importantly, "the focus is not on the correctness of the defendant's conduct, but rather the 'objective reasonableness' of their chosen course of action given the circumstances confronting them." Petway, 2012 WL 2254246, at *6 (citing Lennon, 66 F.3d at 421).

Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff and drawing all reasonable inferences in his favor, the Court is unable to conclude as a matter of law that it was objectively reasonable for Officer Sobolewski to believe there was probable cause to arrest the plaintiff. If plaintiff's version of events are credited, he had no involvement in either a drug purchase or disposal. Despite having no basis for suspecting plaintiff had either purchased drugs or disposed of them, Officer Sobolewski nonetheless provided a physical description of the plaintiff by radio transmission to her team, upon which plaintiff was detained, and then placed under arrest by Officer Sobolewski. Officer Sobolewski then proceeded to inform Sergeant Layton and Officer Martins that she had observed the plaintiff making a drug transaction. Crediting plaintiff's version of the facts, a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that it would be objectively unreasonable for Officer Sobolewski to believe that she was not violating the plaintiff's constitutional rights under these circumstances. See Lennon, 66 F.3d at 420-21; Weyant v. Okst, 101 F.3d 845, 858-59 (2d Cir. 1996) (qualified immunity could not be resolved as a matter of law where the reasonableness of officers' belief that their actions were lawful ...

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