Civil Rights Law – 42 U.S.C. 1983 – Fourth Amendment – Search and Seizure – May 2016

Part 3 of 3

Here is the decision and order of the federal court.  The facts were set forth in our first post in the series (read here…).  The legal arguments were set forth in our second post in the series (read here…)  This is our final post in this sample of federal civil rights litigation arising out of a false arrest by police officers.  Here is that portion of the decision and order of the federal court judge which declared that the police action constituted false arrest and unlawful detention of our client.

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
——————————————————————-X

FERNANDO COLON,

               Plaintiff,

     -against-                                          DECISION AND ORDER

CITY OF NEW YORK, et al.,

               Defendants.
——————————————————————-X

STANDARD

A court reviews motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure under the same standard as motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Bank of N.Y. v. First Millennium, Inc., 607 F.3d 905, 922 (2d Cir. 2010).  “To survive a Rule 12(c) motion, the complaint ‘must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’”  Id. (quoting Hayden v. Paterson, 594 F.3d 150, 160 (2d Cir. 2010)).  The Court accepts as true all well-pleaded factual allegations and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. See L-7 Designs, Inc. v. Old Navy, LLC, 647 F.3d 419, 429 (2d Cir. 2011).  A complaint does not “suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]’ devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (alteration in original) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557 (2007)).  Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure “requires factual allegations that are sufficient to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’” Anderson News, L.L.C. v. Am. Media, Inc., 680 F.3d 162, 182 (2d Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 133 S. Ct. 846 (2013) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

The standard for summary judgment is well established. Summary judgment is appropriate where the record before the court establishes that 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).  The Court must construe the evidence and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); In re “Agent Orange” Prod. Liab. Litig., 517 F.3d 76, 87 (2d Cir. 2008).  A motion for summary judgment should be denied “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict” in favor of the nonmoving party.  NetJets Aviation, Inc. v. LHC Commc’ns, LLC, 537 F.3d 168, 178-79 (2d Cir. 2008).  Summary judgment is warranted if a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.”  Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

DISCUSSION

I.                False Arrest, Detention & Confinement (Counts I, II & V)

All parties move for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s false arrest, detention and confinement claims.  Summary judgment is granted for Plaintiff with respect to his detention prior to Defendant Tisdale’s discovery of marijuana, and for Defendants with respect to Plaintiff’s detention thereafter.

A.             Plaintiff’s Detention Before the Discovery of Marijuana

Defendant Tisdale’s conduct in handcuffing and detaining Plaintiff before discovering marijuana violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and is not entitled to qualified immunity.

In the absence of probable cause to arrest, “Terry v. Ohio [, 392 U.S. 1 (1968),] and Michigan v. Summers [, 452 U.S. 692 (1981),] provide distinct standards for reasonable stops . . . .” United States v. Bailey, 743 F.3d 322, 334 (2d Cir. 2014) (“Bailey V”).  A Terry stop “require[s] reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct beyond proximity to a location of suspected crime,” and a Summers detention “require[s] spatial proximity to the premises to be searched without regard to reasonable suspicion.” Id.

1.     Terry Analysis

A Terry stop is justified if an officer “reasonably suspects that the person apprehended is committing or has committed a criminal offense.” Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 326 (2009).  Reasonable suspicion requires more than a “hunch.”  Terry, 392 U.S. at 27.  It demands “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts,” id. at 21, provide detaining officers with a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting wrongdoing,” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Even viewing the record in the light most favorable to Defendants, there could not have been the reasonable suspicion necessary to stop Plaintiff pursuant to Terry in the first instance.  First, when Plaintiff was initially detained, the only fact connecting him to any possible criminal activity was that Evans, the person associated with the apartment being searched, had just entered the minivan in which Plaintiff was sitting.  However, Defendant Tisdale admitted that he knew, upon approaching the vehicle, that the individual seated in the back was the person connected to the apartment being searched, and therefore that Plaintiff was not that person.

Defendant Tisdale also admitted that he did not believe that Evans was involved in illegal activity at the time.  In light of these admissions, any nexus between Plaintiff and Evans was insufficient to permit Defendant Tisdale to order Plaintiff out of a parked vehicle at gunpoint and immediately handcuff him.  Although “[t]he [reasonable suspicion] standard is not high,” Bailey V, 743 F.3d at 332 (internal quotation marks omitted), it is not satisfied on these facts, and Plaintiff’s detention cannot be justified by Terry.

2.     Summers Analysis

Under Summers, a detention incident to search is constitutional only if “limit[ed] . . . to the area in which an occupant poses a real threat to the safe and efficient execution of a search warrant.” Bailey v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 1031, 1042 (2013) (“Bailey IV”).  In determining whether an occupant was lawfully detained within such “immediate vicinity” of the premises to be searched, courts may consider “the lawful limits of the premises, whether the occupant was within the line of sight of his dwelling, the ease of reentry from the occupant’s location, and other relevant factors.” Id.  Here, nothing in the record suggests – and Defendants do not claim – that Plaintiff was an occupant of the searched apartment at any relevant time, had any intention of entering it or otherwise had any connection to it.  Moreover, Plaintiff was inside a vehicle that was “[a]round the block” from the apartment according to Defendant Tisdale, not within the line of sight, and access to the apartment presumably would have required passage through at least one if not two doors.  These facts are far from satisfying the Summers standard, and could not have justified Plaintiff’s initial detention as effected incident to the search of the apartment.

3.               Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense for which defendants have the burden of proof.  See Lore v. City of Syracuse, 670 F.3d 127, 149 (2d Cir. 2012).  An official sued under § 1983 is entitled to qualified immunity unless it is shown that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct. See Ashcroft v. al–Kidd, 131 S. Ct. 2074, 2080 (2011).  A defendant cannot be said to have violated a clearly established right unless the right’s contours were sufficiently definite for any reasonable official in the defendant’s shoes to understand that he was violating it. Id. at 2083-84.  “In other words, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question confronted by the official beyond debate.” Plumhoff v. Rickard, 134 S. Ct. 2012, 2023 (2014) (internal quotation marks omitted).  “[T]he salient question . . . is whether the state of the law at the time of an incident provided fair warning to the defendants that their alleged [conduct] was unconstitutional.” Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S. Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (alterations in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).  The “dispositive inquiry . . . is whether it would [have been] clear to a reasonable officer in the agents’ position that [their] conduct was unlawful in the situation [they] confronted.” Wood v. Moss, 134 S. Ct. 2056, 2059 (2014) (alterations in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).  “[I]f . . . officers of reasonable competence could disagree . . . , immunity should be recognized.” Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 752 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted).  Whether a clearly established right existed must be considered “in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.”  Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Qualified immunity does not save Defendant Tisdale from liability for Plaintiff’s unlawful initial detention. First, as discussed above, the record contains no evidence tending to show that Defendant Tisdale had any individualized suspicion about Plaintiff, whether reasonable or unreasonable. Thus, there is no factual basis upon which to base a finding of qualified immunity for Defendant Tisdale under Terry.

Second, with respect to Summers, the relevant Supreme Court jurisprudence is grounded in the premise that those who may be subject to detentions incident to search are occupants of the searched premises.  452 U.S. at 701-05.  This occupancy nexus is relevant to each of the three law enforcement interests underpinning the Summers detention: (1) “minimizing the risk of harm to the officers” conducting the search, id. at 702; (2) “the orderly completion of the search,” which “may be facilitated if the occupants of the premises are present,” id. at 703; and (3) “preventing flight in the event that incriminating evidence is found,” id. at 702; see also Bailey IV, 133 S. Ct. at 1038-1041 (elaborating on the three law enforcement interests underpinning a Summers detention).  The Supreme Court has never departed from the occupancy requirement, including in its two cases revisiting Summers that had been decided at the time of Plaintiff’s 2011 detention. See Los Angeles Cnty. v. Rettele, 550 U.S. 609 (2007) (finding that the detention of individuals found on the premises at the time of the search was constitutional pursuant to Summers); Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93 (2005) (same).  Although some courts have found constitutional the detention of individuals who were leaving the premises to be searched, each case involved someone who had just occupied the premises when the officers arrived to execute a search.  See Summers, 452 U.S. at 693 & n.1 (upholding the detention of an individual as he exited the front door of the premises and descended the porch steps); see also United States v. Fullwood, 86 F.3d 27, 29-30 (2d Cir. 1996) (upholding the detention of an individual found outside the premises and about to enter his vehicle); United States v. Bailey, 468 F. Supp. 2d 373, 376 (E.D.N.Y. 2006) (“Bailey I”) (upholding the detention of two individuals after they exited the relevant premises and drove for one mile), aff’d, No. 06 Cr. 232, 2010 WL 277069 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 19, 2010) (“Bailey II”), aff’d, 652 F.3d 197 (2d Cir. 2011), rev’d, 133 S. Ct. 1031, aff’d, 743 F.3d 322 (2d Cir. 2014). Even in Bailey, the case most heavily relied upon by Defendants on the qualified immunity issue,4 the district court stated that officers needed at minimum a “reasonable basis to believe that the person [to be detained] has just left or is about to enter the location to be searched.” Bailey II, 2010 WL 277069, at *14. Thus, in 2011, at the time of Plaintiff’s detention, the occupancy nexus was a clearly established prerequisite to the invocation of Summers.

Here, as discussed above, no evidence suggests that Defendant Tisdale believed or had grounds to believe that Plaintiff had any connection to the apartment that was being searched, let alone that Plaintiff had occupied or intended to occupy the apartment. In light of the clearly established requirement that detentions made pursuant to Summers be limited to the occupants of the premises to be searched, no reasonable officer could have believed that the detention of Plaintiff as he sat in a parked vehicle on another block was justified by Summers. Consequently, Defendant Tisdale is not entitled to qualified immunity under the Summers theory.

To the extent that Defendants could argue that Plaintiff’s initial detention was a reasonably necessary step to detaining Evans pursuant to Summers or Terry, that argument would fail. Even assuming that Defendant Tisdale is entitled to qualified immunity for the detention of Evans, that does not by itself justify the detention of Plaintiff. In United States v. Di Re, police arrested all three occupants of a car when a police informant in the backseat told the officers that the driver had sold him counterfeit coupons but said nothing about the passenger seated next to the driver. 332 U.S. 581, 583 (1948).  The Supreme Court ruled that the passenger’s arrest violated the Fourth Amendment because “[a]ny inference that everyone on the scene of a crime is a party to it must disappear if the Government informer singles out the guilty person.” Id. at 594; see also Ybarra v. Illinois, 444 U.S. 85, 91 (1979) (“[A] person’s mere propinquity to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not, without more, give rise to probable cause to search that person.”). Cf. Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 374 (2003) (finding that police had probable cause to arrest Pringle and two other occupants of a car because “[n]o such singling out occurred in this case”). Likewise here, the confidential informant had singled out Evans alone, and Defendant Tisdale had no information about Plaintiff except that he was with Evans in the car. Because it would have been clear to a reasonable officer in Defendant Tisdale’s position that “merely . . . sitting in the suspect’s vehicle when officers approached,” United States v. Delossantos, 536 F.3d 155, 160 (2d Cir. 2008), “do[es] not, without more, amount to probable cause,” id. at n.4, Defendant Tisdale is not entitled to qualified immunity for Plaintiff’s initial detention, even assuming he would be entitled to qualified immunity for Evans’s detention.

In light of the foregoing, summary judgment is granted in favor of Plaintiff for his unlawful detention before Defendant Tisdale’s discovery of marijuana.

B.        Plaintiff’s Detention After the Discovery of Marijuana

Plaintiff’s claims for false arrest and unlawful detention and confinement (Counts I, II, V) must be analyzed separately for the period after the officers discovered marijuana in Plaintiff’s vehicle. Because probable cause existed for the arrest, summary judgment is granted to Defendants on Counts I, II and V for the period after the discovery.

“‘In analyzing § 1983 claims for unconstitutional false arrest, [courts generally look] to the law of the state in which the arrest occurred.’” Jaegly v. Couch, 439 F.3d 149, 151-52 (2d Cir. 2006) (quoting Davis v. Rodriguez, 364 F.3d 424, 433 (2d Cir. 2004)). In order to state a claim for false arrest or imprisonment under New York law, a plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendant intentionally confined the plaintiff; (2) the plaintiff was conscious of the confinement; (3) the plaintiff did not consent to the confinement; and (4) the confinement was not otherwise justified. See Posr v. Doherty, 944 F.2d 91, 97 (2d Cir. 1991).  Under New York law, “the existence of probable cause is an absolute defense to a false arrest claim.” Jaegly, 439 F.3d at 152.

“‘Probable cause to arrest exists when the arresting officer has knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information of facts and circumstances that are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a crime.’”  Torraco v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 615 F.3d 129, 139 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Escalera v. Lunn, 361 F.3d 737, 743 (2d Cir. 2004)). “The inquiry is limited to ‘whether the facts known by the arresting officer at the time of the arrest objectively provided probable cause to arrest.’”  Gonzalez v. City of Schenectady, 728 F.3d 149, 155 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Jaegly, 439 F.3d at 153).

There is no dispute that Defendant Tisdale ordered Plaintiff and two other individuals out of Plaintiff’s vehicle, in which Defendant Tisdale then discovered marijuana.  That fact alone provides probable cause for Plaintiff’s arrest. See Abreu v. Romero, 466 F. App’x 24, 26 (2d Cir. 2012) (finding, in a New York case, that probable cause to arrest existed after officers found two ounces of marijuana in the plaintiff’s bedroom).

Plaintiff argues that the charge for which he was arrested – unlawful possession of marijuana in violation of New York Penal Law 221.05 – does not authorize law enforcement officers to effect custodial arrests.  With respect to the § 1983 false arrest claim, the Supreme Court in Virginia v. Moore, 553 U.S. 164 (2008), rejected the same argument.  In that case, the appellant argued that he was unlawfully arrested for the misdemeanor of driving on a suspended license because state law did not authorize the arrest. Id. at 167.  The Supreme Court found that the arrest was made with probable cause and did not violate the Fourth Amendment, even if the arrest was impermissible under state law. Id. at 178.  The Court held that “state restrictions do not alter the Fourth Amendment’s protections,” and that to hold otherwise would cause the Fourth Amendment to “vary from place to place and from time to time . . . .” Id. at 176 (internal quotation marks omitted).  Moreover, contrary to Plaintiff’s position, New York law authorizes arrest for the unlawful possession of marijuana in violation of New York Penal Law 221.05.  Under New York Criminal Procedure Law § 140.10, “a police officer may arrest a person for: (a) [a]ny offense when he or she has reasonable cause to believe that such person has committed such offense in his or her presence.”  An “offense” under § 140.10 is defined by New York Penal Law § 10.00(1) as “conduct for which a sentence to a term of imprisonment or to a fine is provided by any law of this state or by any law, local law or ordinance of a political subdivision of this state . . . .” New York Penal Law § 221.05, under which Plaintiff was charged, expressly provides for punishment by a fine.  Plaintiff’s invocation of New York Criminal Procedure Law § 150.75 – requiring that “an appearance ticket shall promptly be issued and served upon” arrestees in connection with § 221.05 – does not change the fact that the unlawful possession of marijuana in violation of § 221.05 is an arrestable offense.  Consequently, Plaintiff’s argument fails with respect to his false arrest claims under both federal and state laws.

Plaintiff asks that the Court decline to follow Townes v. City of New York, in which the Second Circuit held that “[v]ictims of unreasonable searches or seizures may recover damages directly related to the invasion of their privacy . . . ; but such victims cannot be compensated for injuries that result from the discovery of incriminating evidence and consequent criminal prosecution” – i.e., that the “fruit of the poisonous tree” doctrine does not apply in § 1983 actions. 176 F.3d 138, 148 (2d Cir. 1999).  Townes remains binding law in this circuit.  Thus, even assuming that the search of the vehicle that led to the discovery of marijuana was illegal, Plaintiff cannot recover for his arrest on that ground because the arrest was made with probable cause.

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The experienced lawyers at Martin + Colin, P.C., headquartered in White Plains, handle unlawful search and seizure claims, false arrest cases and lawsuits alleging violations of civil rights.  If you have had your civil rights violated, Martin + Colin, P.C. may be able to help. Please call (914) 771 7711 or email using the ‘Contact Us’ form on this webpage.