False arrest case proceeds to trial because of faulty identification lineup

The Court of Appeals holds that a false arrest plaintiff can take his case to the jury because the identification lineup that led to his arrest was faulty and the police arguably lacked probable cause from any other source to think the plaintiff played a role in a death at a nightclub in New York City.

The case is Dufort v. City of New York, decided on October 27. The facts are tragic no matter how you slice it. Plaintiff and his teenage friends were a club when an altercation broke out in the middle of the night. Surveillance video showed plaintiff entering the club with a metal pipe hidden in his clothing. Many people were involved in the attack. While the video shows plaintiff leaving the room when the fight began, holding the pipe, the video did not capture the fight. During the criminal investigation, a witness could not recognize plaintiff's face or other distinguishing characteristics, and she could only confirm that she had seen someone wearing a maroon sweatshirt participate in the attack. Plaintiff's sweatshirt was that color. When plaintiff was placed in the lineup (he was the only one in the lineup with the maroon sweatshirt), a witness identified plaintiff as one of the attackers; this was based solely on the color of the sweatshirt. Plaintiff was acquitted at trial.

False arrest cases cannot proceed if there was probable cause for the arrest. Probable cause presents a low threshold for the police. It amounts to less evidence than needed to convict. For this reason, most false arrest cases are thrown out on the motion for summary judgment. Not this one. There was no probable cause because the lineup procedure was defective. The witness could not recognize plaintiff's face, and she could only recognize the color of his sweatshirt as similar to that of one of the assailants. Then, during the lineup, this witness picked out plaintiff, the only one wearing a maroon sweatshirt during that procedure. As the lineup procedure substantially increased the dangers of misidentification, it was not good enough for probable cause. Without other evidence that would reasonably allow the police to think plaintiff played a role in the attack, there was no probable cause, and the case can proceed to trial.

The Court of Appeals (Walker, Livingston and Lynch) also allow the malicious prosecution claim to proceed to trial. While the defendant officers claim they cannot be sued because the prosecutor's decision to go after the plaintiff interrupts the chain of causation -- on the theory that the prosecutor's independent judgment confirms there was reason to prosecute the plaintiff -- that must be determined by the jury. The evidence suggests the DA's office pursued the prosecution after it was deliberately misled by the defendant officers. Plaintiff "has raised a triable issue of fact as to whether either the grand jury's indictment or the prosecutor's participation in his case constituted intervening causes that insulate the Defendants from liability." For these reasons, defendants cannot invoke qualified immunity as a matter of law. The Court says:

We conclude that it would be inappropriate to grant qualified immunity to these Defendants at the summary judgment stage. Dufort has established a dispute of material fact as to whether the Defendants intentionally withheld or manipulated key evidence during his arrest and prosecution. He has introduced sufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the Defendants placed him in a deeply defective lineup, extracted an "identification” from Park that was limited to the color of his clothing, and then withheld the suspect nature of this identification from prosecutors and the grand jury. Such a “knowing” violation of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights would, if proven, be enough to overcome the protection of qualified immunity. Although Dufort has not produced any direct evidence of a malicious intent on the part of the Defendants, he is not required to do so. Circumstantial evidence is generally sufficient to prove intent, and Dufort has introduced enough such evidence to survive summary judgment.