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Read v. Town of Suffern Police Department

United States District Court, S.D. New York

December 23, 2014

DAVID P. READ, Plaintiff,


J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

Plaintiff David P. Read's brings this lawsuit against the Town of Suffern Police Department pursuant to 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. ( See Dkt. No. 208 ("JPTO") at 2.) The background of this case is set out in the Court's decision on summary judgment, familiarity with which is assumed. See Read v. Town of Suffern Police Dep't, No. 10 Civ. 9042 (JPO), 2013 WL 3193413 (S.D.N.Y. June 25, 2013). The sole claim that survived summary judgment is Read's claim premised on Defendant Officer David Tarantino's alleged use of a Taser on Read when Read was handcuffed to a bar while in police custody. See id. at *2, *8.

Now before the Court is Read's motion in limine to exclude evidence regarding Read's arrest on April 27, 2009, and evidence of Read's prior criminal history and history of orders of protection. (Dkt. No. 210.) For the reasons that follow, Read's motion is granted in part. Decision is reserved on certain issues, and elements of this ruling are subject to reconsideration at trial.

I. Background

This suit concerns a series of events that began on April 27, 2009, when Read was arrested for violating an order of protection and was taken to the Suffern police station. Read, 2013 WL 3193413, at *1-2. The relevant facts, as reflected in the present record, are as follows. Tarantino's shift, as pertinent to this incident, began on April 28, the day after Read's arrest. Tarantino was aware at that time that Read was in custody for criminal contempt and aggravated harassment charges. (Dkt. No. 219 ("Tarantino Br." Ex. 4 ("Tarantino Depo."), at 15-17.) According to Tarantino, Read attempted to harm himself with a prison-issued blanket as well as pieces of a shredded bottle. (Tarantino Depo. at 37-47.) Then, the toilet in the holding cell began to flood.[1] Read was taken out of the holding cell to the processing room, where officers handcuffed him to a bar on the wall in a reverse-seated position. (Read Depo. at 59-60; Tarantino Depo. at 50-53.) While restrained, Read attempted to reach into his bag, which was next to him at the time. (Read Depo. at 61, 102; Tarantino Depo. at 54-57.) Read states that he "tried to get [his] medication, " while Tarantino asserts that Read had retrieved the medication and was ingesting pills. (Read Depo. at 61; Tarantino Depo. at 57-59, 61-62.)

Read was then shocked with a Taser. (Read Depo. at 61-64; Tarantino Depo. at 81-86.) Read states that he was first tased by Officer Michael Lourenso (Read Depo. at 61-62), although this is disputed.[2] Read was subdued. Next, Read asserts, Tarantino continued to shock him, "holding the trigger down and hitting it more jolts [sic] or whatever they do with it, " and "turned around and sa[id to Read], How do you like this, you motherfucker? How does this feel? I'm going to roast your ass.'" (Read Depo. at 62.) Tarantino disputes this. (JPTO at 11.)

II. Discussion

Evidence is admissible only if it is relevant to the matter at issue. Fed.R.Evid. 401, 402. Even relevant evidence, however, may be excluded "if its probative value is substantially outweighed" by the danger of unfair prejudice, undue delay, or confusion. Fed.R.Evid. 403. Read requests that, at trial, Tarantino be precluded from introducing evidence of his arrest that led to his detention in the custody of the Suffern police; the subsequent resolution of that case; and Read's other criminal history. The Court grants his motion in part and denies it in part.

A. Relevance for Liability

Much of the evidence proffered by Tarantino is irrelevant to the central liability question at trial-that is, "[w]hether in the particular circumstances faced by [Tarantino], a reasonable officer would believe that the force employed was lawful." Cowan ex rel. Estate of Cooper v. Breen, 352 F.3d 756, 764 n.7 (2d Cir. 2003). As noted above, Tarantino stated in his deposition that he was aware that Read was arrested on charges of criminal contempt and aggravated harassment. (Tarantino Depo. at 16-17.) Evidence of what Tarantino knew on April 28 about Read's arrest is relevant to the reasonableness of Tarantino's later use of force. The Court concludes that the relevance of this evidence is not substantially outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice. See Fed.R.Evid. 403. Of course, the converse is true for evidence that was unknown to Tarantino at the time of the arrest is very unlikely to be probative of the reasonableness his use of force. Thus, such evidence is either irrelevant to the liability question or has a very low degree of probative value, which is outweighed by its potential to unfairly prejudice Read.

Next, Tarantino testified at his deposition that he had previously interacted with Read numerous times over a span of many years when he responded to police calls involving Read, some of which related to "domestic incidents." ( Id. at 13-15.) The deposition testimony on this point is cursory, however. Without more information as to any evidence Tarantino would offer in this regard, the Court cannot determine whether Tarantino's prior dealings with Read are (1) relevant or (2) admissible under the Rule 403 test. The Court reserves decision on this question.

B. Background Evidence

Evidence of Read's violation of a restraining order and subsequent arrest and processing on April 27 and 28, 2009, even if not directly relevant to the central liability question, may nonetheless be admissible in order to convey the background or context of Read's detention. See, e.g., United States v. Gonzalez, 110 F.3d 936, 941 (2d Cir. 1997) ("Background evidence may be admitted to show, for example, the circumstances surrounding the events or to furnish an explanation of the understanding or intent with which certain acts were performed." (quoting United States v. Coonan, 938 F.2d 1553, 1561 (2d Cir. 1991))).

As noted above, this background evidence-more particularly, information unknown to Tarantino at the time of the incident in question-has little or no probative value as to the central issue of whether Tarantino unreasonably used force against Read. At the same time, the potential for unfair prejudice is significant: the conduct underlying Read's conviction, his alleged hostility to his wife and others during his arrest, and his subsequent conduct in police custody prior to the incident at issue here may paint him in an unfavorable light before the jury. For these reasons, it currently appears that the Rule 403 balancing test weighs against Tarantino's introduction of this type of evidence. Of course, if Read were to present testimony regarding his arrest or the period of his detention prior Tarantino's entry on duty on April 28, the Court would be likely to conclude that Read has opened the door to further exploration of these topics by ...

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