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Ikezi v. City of New York

United States District Court, E.D. New York

March 31, 2017



          MARGO K. BRODIE, United States District Judge.

         Plaintiffs Gerald Ikezi and Anthony Ukazu commenced the above-captioned action on October 8, 2014, against Defendants the City of New York, the New York Police Department (“NYPD”), Police Officer Stephen Centore and Sergeant Robert Mercer. (Compl. ¶¶ 4-7, Docket Entry No. 1.) Plaintiffs' claims arise from a traffic stop during which Officer Centore and Sergeant Mercer stopped Ikezi due to alleged traffic infractions and detained Plaintiffs while the officers investigated the validity of the vehicle's license plate. (Id. ¶¶ 10-15.) Plaintiffs bring claims for false arrest and excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, false arrest under New York state law, and respondeat superior. (Id. ¶¶ 16-24.) Defendants move for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Defs. Mot. for Summ. J. (“Defs. Mot.”), Docket Entry No. 30; Defs. Mem. of Law in Supp. of Defs. Mot. (“Defs. Mem.”), Docket Entry No. 31.) For the reasons discussed below, the Court grants Defendants' motion and dismisses the Complaint in its entirety.

         I. Background

         In March of 2014, Ikezi was working part-time in New York for an Indiana-based car dealer, Prolific Customs, which conducted business in New York. (Deposition of Gerald Ikezi (“Ikezi Dep.”) 29-30, Docket Entry No. 32-1.) Ikezi's “boss, ” Darryl Williams, asked Ikezi to move one of the company's vehicles from Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York, to a more secure location in New York City. (Id. at 29-30, 60-61.) Williams gave Ikezi the keys to the car, the registration, proof of insurance and an Indiana transporter license plate[1] to place on the car while Ikezi transported the car. (Id. at 58-59, 62.)

         On March 6, 2014, Ikezi picked up the car from Jamaica Avenue. (Id. at 60-61, 65.) He attached the license plate to the rear bumper and proceeded to drive the car to his home. (Id. at 63.) Ikezi intended to park the car in the driveway of his home in Addisleigh Park until he received further instructions from Williams. (Id.) While Ikezi was driving the car, his friend Ukazu sent him a text message telling him that he was in the area. Id. Ikezi stopped and picked up Ukazu. (Id. at 63-64.)

         The parties dispute the time at which the officers initiated the traffic stop. According to the officers, they initiated the stop at approximately 9:30 PM. (Deposition of Stephen Centore (“Centore Dep.”) 6, Docket Entry No. 32-5.) According to Plaintiffs, the officers initiated the stop earlier than 9:30 PM. Ikezi recalls that the stop occurred between “7:30[] and 8:30 [PM], ” (Affidavit of Gerald Ikezi (“Ikezi Aff.”) ¶¶ 5, 11, Docket Entry No. 32-1), and Ukazu recalls that the stop occurred between “8:00 and 8:30 [PM], ” (Affidavit of Anthony Ukazu (“Ukazu Aff.”) ¶ 10, Docket Entry No 37-2).[2]

         The parties also dispute whether the officers had a valid reason for initiating the stop. According to the officers, Ikezi was driving on Jamaica Avenue with a passenger and approaching the intersection at Francis Lewis Boulevard when they observed him “veer” out of his lane and change lanes without signaling. (Centore Dep. 5-9; Defs. Deposition of Sergeant Mercer (“Defs. Mercer Dep.”) 11, Docket Entry No. 32-6.) Based on that observation, Officer Centore initiated the traffic stop because he believed Ikezi may have been driving while intoxicated. (Centore Dep. 9.) According to Ikezi, he was driving on Jamaica Avenue with Ukazu as a passenger when he observed police lights and sirens in his rearview mirror. (Ikezi Dep. 66.) He never changed or swerved out of his lane and was unaware of the reason the officers initiated the traffic stop. (Ikezi Aff. ¶¶ 5, 11.)

         After Ikezi stopped the vehicle, the officers approached the vehicle - Officer Centore approached the driver's side of the vehicle where Ikezi sat and Sergeant Mercer approached the passenger side of the vehicle where Ukazu sat. (Ikezi Dep. 66-67; Centore Dep. 12-13.) As the officers were approaching the vehicle, they noticed the Indiana transporter plate on the car and believed the license plate was forged or stolen because the license plate appeared to be a sticker affixed to a metal backing. (Centore Dep. 8-9; Defs. Mercer Dep. 23-25.) After he approached the vehicle, Officer Centore asked Ikezi for his license, registration and proof of insurance for the vehicle. (Ikezi Dep. 67-69.) Based on his experience, the lack of an alcohol odor or any other signs of intoxication, Officer Centore concluded that Ikezi was not intoxicated. (Centore Dep. 31-32.)

         While Officer Centore questioned Ikezi, Sergeant Mercer focused on investigating the validity of the license plate. (Pls. Deposition of Sergeant Mercer (“Pls. Mercer Dep.”) 24-27, Docket Entry No. 37-4.) Sergeant Mercer detained Ukazu to safely complete the investigation and to prevent Plaintiffs from possibly fleeing. (Id.) Sergeant Mercer asked Ukazu for his identification and asked him to step out of the vehicle. (Id.) Sergeant Mercer then handcuffed Ukazu and directed him to sit on the curb. (Id. at 26.)

         When Officer Centore observed Sergeant Mercer detaining Ukazu, he proceeded to do the same with Ikezi - he asked Ikezi to step out of the vehicle, handcuffed him, and directed him to sit on the curb. (Centore Dep. 14-15.) According to Plaintiffs, they requested that the officers handcuff them with their hands in front of their body because they both had shoulder injuries that could be aggravated if they were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs. (Ikezi Dep. 69; Ukazu Aff. ¶¶ 6-7.) According to Plaintiffs, the officers ignored their requests, (id.), but according to the officers, Plaintiffs never made such requests, (Centore Dep. 23).

         After handcuffing Plaintiffs, the officers began checking Plaintiffs' identification and the paperwork related to the vehicle.[3] (Ukazu Dep. 44.) The officers removed the license plate from the vehicle to inspect it more closely, and began peeling the laminated portion of the license plate from the metal backing. (Id.) Ikezi requested that the officers stop damaging the license plate because it belonged to Williams. (Id.) Sergeant Mercer called the NYPD's automobile crime division, the NYPD's automobile loss unit and the Indiana state police to determine whether the license plate was valid, and ultimately determined that the license plate was valid. (Defs. Mercer Dep. 26.) According to the officers, at approximately 10:00 PM, Plaintiffs were uncuffed and released. (Centore Dep. 22-23.) Ikezi agrees that the detention ended at approximately 10:00 PM. (Ikezi Aff. ¶¶ 5, 11.) Ukazu recalls that detention ended at approximately 10:00 or 10:30 PM. (Ukazu Aff. ¶ 10.)

         As a result of being handcuffed behind his back, Ikezi's shoulder injury was exacerbated and he continues to suffer from pain and a decreased range of motion in his shoulder. (Ikezi Aff. ¶ 12; Ikezi Dep. 95-97.) Ukazu suffered at the time of the incident and continues to suffer “severe pain” in his shoulder as a result of the officers handcuffing him behind his back. (Ukazu Aff. ¶ 14.)

         II. Discussion

         a. Standard of review

         Summary judgment is proper only when, construing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, “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); Davis v. Shah, 821 F.3d 231, 243 (2d Cir. 2016); see also Cortes v. MTA NYC Transit, 802 F.3d 226, 230 (2d Cir. 2015). The role of the court “is not to resolve disputed questions of fact but only to determine whether, as to any material issue, a genuine factual dispute exists.” Rogoz v. City of Hartford, 796 F.3d 236, 245 (2d Cir. 2015) (first quoting Kaytor v. Elec. Boat Corp., 609 F.3d 537, 545 (2d Cir. 2010); and then citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249-50 (1986)). A genuine issue of fact exists when there is sufficient “evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the plaintiff.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. The “mere existence of a scintilla of evidence” is not sufficient to defeat summary judgment. Id. The court's function is to decide “whether, after resolving all ambiguities and drawing all inferences in favor of the non-moving party, a rational juror could find in favor of that party.” Pinto v. Allstate Ins. Co., 221 F.3d 394, 398 (2d Cir. 2000).

         b. Claims against the NYPD

         Plaintiffs named the NYPD as a Defendant. (Compl. ¶ 7.) However, the NYPD is a non-suable state entity. Section 396 of the New York City Charter provides that “[a]ll actions and proceedings for the recovery of penalties for the violation of any law shall be brought in the name of the City of New York and not in that of any agency, except where otherwise provided by law.” N.Y. City Charter, chap. 17 § 396. This provision “has been construed to mean that New York City departments, as distinct from the City itself, lack the capacity to be sued.” Ximines v. George Wingate High Sch., 516 F.3d 156, 159-60 (2d Cir. 2008) (per curiam); see also Jenkins v. City of New York, 478 F.3d 76, 93 n.19 (2d Cir. 2007) (“[T]he NYPD is a non-suable agency of the City.”); Morris v. N.Y.C. Police Dep't, 59 F. App'x 421, 422 (2d Cir. 2003) (affirming dismissal of claims asserted against the NYPD due to non-suable-entity status). Accordingly, the Court dismisses Plaintiffs' claims against the NYPD.

         c. Section 1983 claims

         Plaintiffs allege that the officers violated their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights when the officers (1) conducted an investigatory stop and detention without reasonable suspicion, (2) arrested them without probable cause and (3) used excessive force in the course of the arrest. (Compl. ¶¶ 16-17.)

         Under section 1983, individuals may bring a private cause of action against persons “acting under color of state law” to recover money damages for deprivations of their federal or constitutional rights. Matusick v. Erie Cty. Water Auth., 757 F.3d 31, 55 (2d Cir. 2014) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 1983). To establish a viable section 1983 claim, a plaintiff must show “the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States” and that “the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” Vega v. Hempstead Union Free Sch. Dist., 801 F.3d 72, 87-88 (2d Cir. 2015) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         Defendants move for summary judgment, arguing that Plaintiffs have failed to show that the officers' conduct violated Plaintiffs' constitutional rights and, in the alternative, that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity. (Defs. Mem. 6-20.) The Court addresses Defendants' arguments below.

         i. False arrest

         Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' false arrest claims fail as a matter of law because, based on Ikezi's traffic infractions and on the appearance of the license plate: (1) the officers had reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigatory stop and to conduct an investigatory detention, and, (2) in the alternative, the officers had probable cause to arrest Plaintiffs. (Defs. Mem. 6- 14.) Plaintiffs argue that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop or detention, nor did they have probable cause for an arrest. (Pls. Mem. in Opp'n to Defs. Mot. (“Pls. Opp'n”) 9-26, Docket Entry No. 34.)

         “Under New York law, ‘to prevail on a claim of false arrest a plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant intended to confine him, (2) the plaintiff was conscious of the confinement, (3) the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement and (4) the confinement was not otherwise privileged.'” Nzegwu v. Friedman, 605 F. App' x. 27, 29 (2d Cir. 2015) (quoting Jocks v. Tavernier, 316 F.3d 128, 135 (2d Cir. 2003)). “A [section] 1983 claim for false arrest is substantially the same as a claim for false arrest under New York law.” Gonzalez v. City of Schenectady, 728 F.3d 149, 155 (2d Cir. 2013). Accordingly, the Court considers Plaintiffs' state and federal false arrest claims under the section 1983 framework.

         The Court first considers whether Defendants had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop and detention and then separately considers whether they had probable cause.

         1. Reasonable suspicion

         Defendants argue that the officers had reasonable suspicion to initiate an investigatory stop based on Ikezi's traffic infractions and reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory detention based on their observation of the license plate and their belief that it may have been forged or stolen. (Defs. Mem. 9-14.) Plaintiffs argue that the investigatory stop and detention were unlawful because the officers lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to initiate a traffic stop, nothing about the license plate gave the officers reason to believe that it was forged or fictitious, the officers had no reason to handcuff them during the course of the detention, and the officers unnecessarily prolonged the duration of the detention. (Pls. Opp'n 18-20.) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, the Court finds that: (1) there are disputed issues of material fact as to whether the initial investigatory stop was constitutional, (2) the officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct the investigatory detention based on their observation that the license plate appeared to be forged or fictitious, and (3) the scope and duration of the investigatory detention were reasonable.

         The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. United States v. Jenkins, 452 U.S. 207, 212 (2d Cir. 2006). “Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.” Id. (quoting Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996)). Police officers may temporarily detain a person, absent probable cause, in limited circumstances. United States v. Bailey, 743 F.3d 322, 336 (2d Cir. 2014) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 22-25 (1968)); see also United States v. Compton, 830 F.3d 55, 61 (2d Cir. 2016) (holding that the Fourth Amendment allows a police officer to conduct an investigatory detention if the officer has reasonable suspicion (citing Bailey, 743 F.3d at 332)); United States v. Singletary, 798 F.3d 55, 59 (2d Cir. 2015) (holding that “in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner, ” it is constitutionally permissible “temporarily to detain a person to investigate possible criminality even in the absence of . . . probable cause” (quoting Bailey, 743 F.3d at 331-32)). Specifically, where a police officer has a reasonable articulable basis to suspect that the individual “is committing or has committed a criminal offense, ” a temporary investigatory stop and detention may be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Bailey, 743 F.3d at 336.

         Reasonable suspicion, like probable cause, is determined objectively based on the information available to the police officers at the time and not on their subjective state of mind. United States v. Awan, 607 F.3d 306, 317 (2d Cir. 2010). While the requisite suspicion “is not a high threshold, ” United States v. Lawes, 292 F.3d 123, 127 (2d Cir. 2002), it is “more than a hunch, ” and requires “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, provide detaining officers with a particularized and objective basis for suspecting wrongdoing.” Bailey, 743 F.3d at 336 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted) (first citing Terry, 392 U.S. at 21; and then citing United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002)); United States v. Rivera, 353 F. App'x. 535, 536 (2d Cir. 2009).

         A valid investigatory stop based on reasonable suspicion must be “justified at its inception.” United States v. Lopez, 321 F. App'x. 65, 67 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 20); see also United States v. Freeman, 735 F.3d 92, 96 (2d Cir. 2013) (“Any events that occur after a stop is effectuated cannot contribute to the analysis of whether there was reasonable suspicion to warrant the stop in the first instance.”). However, when deciding whether a plaintiff has a viable section 1983 claim for unconstitutional investigatory detention, where an officer made an initial investigatory stop without reasonable suspicion, courts may consider whether the officer developed reasonable suspicion for the investigatory detention based on conduct the officer observed after the initial unlawful stop. See Jenkins, 478 F.3d at 91 n.16 (holding that “the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine cannot be invoked to support a [s]ection 1983 claim” for false arrest where the plaintiff argued that arrest was unlawful because the initial stop was unlawful (citing Townes v. City of New York, 176 F.3d 138, 145 (2d Cir. 1999)); Ellsworth v. Wachtel, No. 11-CV-0381, 2013 WL 140342, at *8 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 11, 2013) (dismissing a section 1983 false arrest claim where the plaintiff argued that an arrest following a unlawful stop was unconstitutional because “the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine is not available to assist a [section] 1983 claimant”); Lawrence v. City Cadillac, No. 10-CV-3324, 2010 WL 5174209, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 9, 2010) (collecting cases). In such cases, the officer's reasonable suspicion for the investigatory detention must nevertheless meet the Fourth Amendment requirements. See id.; see also Bailey, 743 ...

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