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Mahoney v. State

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

February 23, 2017

CORNELIUS J. MAHONEY et al., Respondents,

          Calendar Date: January 13, 2017

          Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General, Albany (Jonathan D. Hitsous of counsel), for appellant.

          Cappello & Linden, Potsdam (Roger B. Linden of counsel), for respondents.

          Before: Peters, P.J., Lynch, Devine, Clark and Aarons, JJ.


          PETERS, P.J.

         Appeals (1) from a decision of the Court of Claims (Midey Jr., J.), entered October 15, 2015, following a bifurcated trial in favor of claimant Cornelius J. Mahoney on the issue of liability, and (2) from the judgment entered thereon.

         Claimant Cornelius J. Mahoney (hereinafter claimant) is the owner and sole shareholder of a used car dealership in the Village of Canton, St. Lawrence County. Many of the vehicles that claimant sold were imported from Canada for resale in New York. Because most Canadian cars measure distance in kilometers, claimant would use one of several companies to have a vehicle's odometer converted from kilometers to miles prior to resale. Upon selling a vehicle, the dealership would assist the customer in registering the vehicle. Erin Hayes, claimant's daughter and office manager, was responsible for filing the registration paperwork with the Department of Motor Vehicles (hereinafter DMV) at its Canton branch office.

         In 2001, an employee at DMV's Canton branch informed Hayes of a new requirement for the registration of vehicles imported from Canada - the filing of an "odometer conversion statement" identifying the vehicle and setting forth the odometer conversion from kilometers to miles. Although there was no specific form to be used for such statement, Hayes was advised that it had to be on letterhead and come from the business that performed the conversion. At that time, claimant had been using two companies, Online Speedometer and SpeedoMax, to perform the odometer conversions. When Online Speedometer went out of business in spring 2001, however, Hayes was unable to obtain the necessary odometer conversion statements from it for the vehicles on which that company had already performed the conversion. To address the inability to obtain odometer conversion statements from Online Speedometer, claimant directed Hayes to create odometer conversion statements containing SpeedoMax letterhead, the conversion company that the dealership was currently using, on which the required information would be provided.

         In March 2003, an investigator in DMV's Odometer Fraud Unit contacted the State Police after receiving a report of a suspicious speedometer calibration certification that had been filed with the Canton DMV. Following an investigation conducted primarily by Investigator James DiSalvo, claimant was charged with 51 counts of offering a false instrument for filing, brought in three groups in May, June and July 2003, related to the filing of odometer conversion statements by his dealership. In August 2003, claimant was also charged with one count of grand larceny in the fourth degree and criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree stemming from allegations that he, respectively, furnished a customer with an extended warranty that never became effective and a falsified odometer conversion statement. For the June and August sets of charges, the police obtained and executed a warrant for claimant's arrest.

         In 2004, all charges were dismissed on speedy trial grounds (see CPL 30.30). Shortly thereafter, claimants commenced this action against defendant for, among other things, malicious prosecution and false arrest. Following a bifurcated trial on the issue of liability, the Court of Claims found, insofar as is relevant here, that the charges filed in May and June 2003 were supported by probable cause, while the July and August 2003 charges were not. Accordingly, the court found that defendant was liable for malicious prosecution and false arrest with respect to the July and August 2003 sets of charges [1]. Defendant now appeals from the decision of the Court of Claims and the judgment entered thereon. [2]

         Because this is "an appeal from a judgment issued after a nonjury trial, we are able to independently review the weight of the evidence and, while according appropriate deference to the trial judge's credibility assessments and factual findings, grant the judgment warranted by the record" (Williams v State of New York, 140 A.D.3d 1376, 1377 [2016] [internal quotation marks, ellipses and citations omitted]; see Medina v State of New York, 133 A.D.3d 943, 944 [2015], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 905');">27 N.Y.3d 905 [2016]). It is fundamental that the lack of probable cause is an essential element of causes of action for false arrest and malicious prosecution (see De Lourdes Torres v Jones, 26 N.Y.3d 742, 761 [2016]; Gisondi v Town of Harrison, 72 N.Y.2d 280, 283 [1988]; Saunders v County of Washington, 255 A.D.2d 788, 789 [1998]; Brown v Roland, 215 A.D.2d 1000, 1001 [1995], lv dismissed 87 N.Y.2d 861');">87 N.Y.2d 861 [1995]). In the context of a false arrest or malicious prosecution claim, "[p]robable cause consists of such facts and circumstances as would lead a reasonably prudent person in like circumstances to believe [claimant] guilty" (Colon v City of New York, 60 N.Y.2d 78, 82 [1983]; see Smith v County of Nassau, 34 N.Y.2d 18, 25 [1974]; Guntlow v Barbera, 76 A.D.3d 760, 762 [2010], appeal dismissed 15 N.Y.3d 906');">15 N.Y.3d 906 [2010]). Notably, "[p]robable cause does not require proof sufficient to warrant a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt but merely information sufficient to support a reasonable belief that an offense has been or is being committed by the suspected individual" (De Lourdes Torres v Jones, 26 N.Y.3d at 759 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). Furthermore, where, as here, an arrest warrant has been issued by a court of competent jurisdiction, there is "a presumption that the arrest was [made] on probable cause" (Broughton v State of New York, 37 N.Y.2d 451, 458 [1975], cert denied 423 U.S. 929');">423 U.S. 929 [1975]; see Dann v Auburn Police Dept., 138 A.D.3d 1468, 1470 [2016], lv denied 141 A.D.3d 1124');">141 A.D.3d 1124 [2016]).

         Applying these principles to the matter before us, we conclude that the Court of Claims' probable cause findings with regard to the July and August 2003 charges were in error. With respect to the July 2003 charges, "[a] person is guilty of offering a false instrument for filing in the first degree when[, ] knowing that a written instrument contains a false statement or false information, and with intent to defraud the state..., he or she offers or presents it to a public office... with the knowledge or belief that it will be filed with, registered or recorded in or otherwise become a part of the records of such public office" (Penal Law § 175.35 [1]). Here, claimant's sworn statements to police establish that he directed Hayes to create odometer conversion statements on falsified SpeedoMax letterhead and then caused such statements to be filed with DMV while registering vehicles sold through his dealership. Indeed, Hayes confirmed claimant's role in the operation and gave police the electronic template that she had created for the SpeedoMax letterhead.

         The Court of Claims found that such facts gave rise to probable cause to arrest and prosecute claimant on the May and June 2003 sets of charges. Yet, the court concluded that DiSalvo's knowledge as of July 2003 that claimant had no legal duty to file odometer conversion statements with DMV, and his failure to divulge this information to the court when applying for an arrest warrant for the 11 additional counts of offering a false statement, eviscerated the probable cause that otherwise supported the charges and claimant's arrest. This was error. Simply put, a legal duty to file an instrument is not an element of the offense of filing a false instrument (see Penal Law § 175.35). Thus, "a finding as to whether [claimant] was required to file such instrument is irrelevant to the determination that the instrument filed was false" (People v Willette, 290 A.D.2d 576, 578 [2002], lv denied 97 N.Y.2d 763');">97 N.Y.2d 763 [2002]; see People v Isakov, 120 A.D.3d 589, 591 [2014]; see generally Gisondi v Town of Harrison, 72 N.Y.2d at 284-285) [3]. Accordingly, DiSalvo's failure to disclose this information could have no bearing on the ultimate issue of whether probable cause existed to believe that claimant committed a crime (see Gisondi v Town of Harrison, 72 N.Y.2d at 285-286; Brown v Sears Roebuck & Co., 297 A.D.2d 205, 211 [2002]; Manno v State of New York, 176 A.D.2d 1222, 1223 [1991]; Davis v State of New York, 124 A.D.2d 420, 422-423 [1986]).

         Nor does the record support the finding of the Court of Claims that DiSalvo knew after his June 25, 2003 meeting with the District Attorney's office that the pending May and June 2003 charges would be dismissed. To be sure, while DiSalvo had an "impression" that such charges would be dismissed based on that meeting, the record reflects that the officials of that office "never told [DiSalvo] that they were going to dismiss the case." Moreover, an Assistant District Attorney specifically instructed DiSalvo to "move forward" with respect to the July 2003 charges and the arrest warrant. In any event, such information would not have undermined the probable cause for the new charges brought in July 2003 and the procurement of the arrest warrant for claimant, all of which were, as previously observed, supported by probable cause (see Callan v State of New York, 73 N.Y.2d 731, 732 [1988], revd for ...

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