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Garnett v. Undercover Officer C0039

United States District Court, S.D. New York

April 6, 2015

KWAME GARNETT, Plaintiff, :
v.
UNDERCOVER OFFICER C0039 and UNDERCOVER OFFICER C0243, Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

GREGORY H. WOODS, District Judge.

A jury found Undercover Officer C0039 ("UC 39") liable for denial of the plaintiff's right to a fair trial. To do so, the jury found that the officer fabricated evidence. UC 39 argues here that so long as he had probable cause to arrest the plaintiff, he was free to fabricate additional evidence to support a conviction for the charged offense without incurring liability. He further argues that he was free to fabricate evidence without liability so long as the evidence that he fabricated was arguably not admissible as evidence.

These arguments are wrong as a matter of law. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has clearly held that "[n]o arrest, no matter how lawful or objectively reasonable, gives an arresting officer or his fellow officers license to deliberately manufacture false evidence against an arrestee. To hold that police officers, having lawfully arrested a suspect, are then free to fabricate false confessions at will, would make a mockery of the notion that Americans enjoy the protection of due process of the law and fundamental justice." Ricciuti v. N.Y. City Transit Authority, 124 F.3d 123, 130 (2d Cir. 1997).

UC 39 is promoting a devolution of the law from this clear standard. The arguments that he presents profoundly weaken the protection of citizens against the fabrication of evidence by police officers. The arguments are cleverly constructed on the basis of a nonprecedential summary order-selectively quoted and interpreted in an ahistorical manner. Still, they are wrong.

Because the Second Circuit has spoken clearly in published, precedential decisions on these issues, the Court denies the defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law. For the reasons stated below, the Court also rejects the other arguments asserted by the defendant and the plaintiff attacking the jury's verdict.

I. DEFENDANT'S RULE 50 MOTION

A. Background

The Court assumes the reader's familiarity with the underlying facts of this case.[1] Still, a short review may be helpful. The plaintiff, Mr. Kwame Garnett, had been out of prison for just over a week when he was arrested for his alleged participation in a drug sale in East Harlem. According to the facts elicited at trial, Mr. Garnett walked with two friends to an area near a convenience store at East 116th Street. Mr. Garnett's friends went inside the store, and sold drugs to a person who, unfortunately for them, turned out to be an undercover police officer-Undercover Police Officer 0243 ("UC 243"), one of the defendants in this case.

Mr. Garnett acknowledged that he was on the sidewalk outside the store where the drug transaction took place. Not, according to him, because he was involved in the drug sale-rather, he was simply buying chicken at the store next door.

Undercover Police Officer 0039 ("UC 39") told a different story. UC 39 was assigned as the "ghost" undercover officer on the day of the arrest, and was stationed outside the store. According to UC 39, he saw Mr. Garnett outside the store, where the drug transaction was taking place, looking up and down the street. In UC 39's view, Mr. Garnett was acting like a look-out for a drug transaction.

UC 39's account of the arrest went further. According to him, Mr. Garnett entered the small store while the sale was taking place. UC 39 followed him into the 6' × 9' store. While inside the store, UC 39 asserted, Mr. Garnett made this incriminating statement "in sum and substance": "Yo, hurry up, ya'll ain't done yet, get that money, I'm not looking to get locked up tonight, let's go." No one other than UC 39 heard Mr. Garnett say those words. UC 39 reported on the statement in his report. He also passed the statement to another officer, Officer Viruet, who included it in the criminal complaint, which was the basis for Mr. Garnett's prosecution. UC 39 conveyed the information to an assistant district attorney. UC 39 also later testified regarding the statement.

As the jury heard at trial, however, this was not UC 39's first interaction with the plaintiff. Years before this arrest, the plaintiff had assaulted UC 39 while UC 39 was working undercover in Mr. Garnett's apartment complex. According to UC 39, Mr. Garnett held a gun to his head during the course of that assault. Mr. Garnett was arrested and imprisoned as a result of that assault. Mr. Garnett had been released from his term of imprisonment for that arrest just days before UC 39 encountered Mr. Garnett again during the incident that gave rise to this suit. The only person who reported Mr. Garnett's alleged incriminating statement was the victim of an attack by Mr. Garnett years before.

Mr. Garnett was arrested along with his friends. The two friends involved in the hand-to-hand drug transaction inside the store pleaded guilty. Mr. Garnett maintained his innocence and went to trial. He was acquitted. However, because he could not afford to post bail, he spent 8 months in jail awaiting trial.

The plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleged that UC 39 falsely arrested him, caused his malicious prosecution, and denied him a right to a fair trial. The plaintiff also alleged that UC 39's partner, UC 243, failed to intervene to prevent his arrest and prosecution. A theory promoted by the plaintiff at trial was that UC 39 retaliated against the plaintiff for participating in the prior armed robbery of UC 39, and that the information that UC 39 reported regarding Mr. Garnett's entry into the store, and, particularly, his self-incriminating statement while inside the store, were fabricated.

Following trial, the jury found that UC 243 was not liable with respect to the failure to intervene claim. The jury found in favor of UC 39 on the false arrest and malicious prosecution claims, but found him liable on the denial of a right to fair trial claim. The Court charged the jury on the denial of a right to fair trial claim using language proposed by the parties.[2] The charge instructed that in order to find UC 39 liable, the jury must find that UC 39 fabricated evidence of a material nature, and that he intentionally forwarded that false information to prosecutors.

The jury awarded the plaintiff $1 in consequential damages and $20, 000 in punitive damages. Judgment was entered on December 10, 2014, after UC 39 wrote the Court that he wished to pursue this set of post-trial motions, instead of resolving the matter through settlement. Docket No. 98.

UC 39 now moves for judgment as a matter of law on the denial of a right to fair trial claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50, or, as an alternative, for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. The plaintiff moves for a new trial on his false arrest, malicious prosecution, and failure to intervene claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59. For the reasons that follow, both parties' motions are denied.

B. Analysis

A moving party bears a heavy burden to prevail on a Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law. Under Rule 50, judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only where "the court finds that a reasonable jury would not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find for the party...." Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1). There must be "such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or there is such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded [persons] could not arrive at a verdict against him." Bucalo v. Shelter Island Union Free Sch. Dist., 691 F.3d 119, 127-28 (2d Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). In ruling on a motion for a judgment as a matter of law, the Court must "consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was made... and give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that the jury might have drawn in his favor from the evidence." Harris v. O'Hare, 770 F.3d 224, 231 (2d Cir. 2014).

1. UC 39 Cannot Fabricate Evidence Even If He Had Probable Cause to Arrest Mr. Garnett

UC 39 argues that he cannot be found liable for denial of Mr. Garnett's right to a fair trial because the fabricated evidence did not cause Mr. Garnett's deprivation of liberty. UC 39 argues that the jury must have found that he had probable cause to arrest Mr. Garnett, because UC 39 was not found liable for the plaintiff's false arrest and malicious prosecution claims-probable cause being a defense to such claims. Since the arrest itself was privileged by probable cause, the logic goes, Mr. Garnett's deprivation of liberty cannot have been caused by the fabricated evidence.

Here's how UC 39 describes his argument: "[I]f a prosecution is privileged (i.e. probable cause existed) and the plaintiff's alleged deprivation of liberty is this same privileged prosecution without more, then a plaintiff cannot show that he was harmed from [ sic ] the alleged deprivation. In other words, when a plaintiff's deprivation of liberty is justified and he alleges nothing more than that deprivation, then the plaintiff cannot seek damages based on an already justified deprivation of liberty." Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendant's Post-Trial Motions ("Defendant's Motion"), Docket No. 108, at 10.

The leading case in this Circuit regarding claims for deprivation of the right to fair trial is Ricciuti v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 124 F.3d 123 (2d Cir. 1997). Ricciuti involved a set of facts similar to those here. An officer attributed a statement to a criminal defendant, which was included in a memorandum and, in turn "into several subsequent investigation reports prepared in connection with the... investigation...." Ricciuti, 124 F.3d at 126. The Circuit allowed the claim to proceed, holding that "[w]hen a police officer creates false information likely to influence a jury's decision and forwards that information to prosecutors, he violates the accused's constitutional right to a fair trial...." Ricciuti, 124 F.3d at 130; see also Jocks v. Tavernier, 316 F.3d 128, 138 (2d Cir. 2003) (citing Ricciuti for the same proposition). In Ricciuti, the court did not require that the false information submitted to the prosecutor be used at trial, or even that a trial ever take place-the claim accrues when the officer forwards the false information to the prosecutors.

The Second Circuit addressed the question of whether probable cause can be the basis for a defense to a claim of denial of the right to fair trial in Ricciuti. The Second Circuit rejected the argument that UC 39 makes ...


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