In today’s litigation-happy society, almost every arrest could engender at least the threat of suit. Quite often, a suspect’s first complaint is that he has been falsely arrested.
To prevail on a claim of false arrest under the Fourth Amendment, the arrestee must show that he was arrested without probable cause. Mustafa v. City of Chicago, 442 F.3d 544, 547 (7th Cir. 2006)(“Probable cause to arrest is an absolute defense to any claim under Section 1983 against police officers for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, or malicious prosecution.”). Police officers have probable cause to arrest an individual when the facts and circumstances within their knowledge and of which they have reasonably trustworthy information are sufficient to warrant a prudent person in believing that the suspect had committed an offense. The court evaluates probable cause not on the facts as an omniscient observer would perceive them, but rather as they would have appeared to a reasonable person in the position of the arresting officer.
Probable cause does not require certainty. It is a fluid concept that relies on the common-sense judgment of the officers based on the totality of the circumstances. Hart v. Mannina, 798 F.3d 578, 587 (7th Cir. 2015). A court looks at the conclusions that the arresting officer reasonably might have drawn from the information known to him rather than his subjective reasons for making the arrest. Holmes v. Hoffman Estates, 511 F.3d 673, 679 (7th Cir. 2007). To make that objective assessment, the court must consider the facts as they reasonably appeared to the arresting officer, seeing what he saw, hearing what he heard, and so forth. A police officer may . . . exercise common sense and draw upon his training and experience in evaluating the totality of the circumstances confronting him, and a court must likewise make allowance for such judgments in deciding what the arresting officer reasonably might have concluded about the facts. While probable cause to arrest “depends on the requirements of the applicable state criminal law,” Pourghoraishi v. Flying J, Inc., 449 F.3d 751, 761 (7th Cir. 2006), “[i]t does not require the fine resolution of conflicting evidence that a reasonable-doubt or even a preponderance standard demands,” Gerstein, 420 U.S. at 121; Mucha v. Village of Oak Brook, 650 F.3d 1053, 1057 (7th Cir. 2011)(probable cause “does not require the existence of criminal activity to be more likely true than not true”).
For example, in Mcphaul v. Ball State Univ. Police, 2016 WL 1077043, * 1 (S.D. Ind. Mar. 18, 2016), a federal district court determined on summary judgment that the Defendant officers possessed probable cause to arrest the Plaintiff on the charges of public intoxication, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. On April 20, 2013, the Plaintiff exited a bar in Muncie, Indiana, and saw his friend being questioned by police officers and witnesses one of the officers begin to administer a field sobriety test to his friend. The Plaintiff, then, began yelling that he was videotaping the interaction between the police and his friend. The Plaintiff’s yelling attracted a crowd, and so, one of the officers asked another “to handle” the Plaintiff. When the officer approached the Plaintiff, the officer could smell alcohol on the Plaintiff’s breath. When the Plaintiff refused to calm down and remain quiet, the officer reached for the Plaintiff to place him in handcuffs, but the Plaintiff backed up and pulled away. The officer interpreted the Plaintiff’s actions as resisting arrest, and so, the officer used a leg sweep to tackle the Plaintiff and placed the Plaintiff in handcuffs once he was face down on the ground. The Plaintiff subsequently sued alleging false arrest and excessive force.
In determining that the officers possessed probable cause to arrest the Plaintiff, the district court explained that probable cause is an absolute defense to any claim of false arrest. The district court further explained that whether an officer has probable cause to arrest depends on the facts known to him at the time of the arrest.
The district court then set forth the undisputed facts that the Plaintiff was acting disorderly and was resisting arrest when he would not remain calm and would not stop interfering with the officers as they attempted to administer the field sobriety test. In addition, the officers could smell the strong odor of alcohol on the Plaintiff’s breath. The district court concluded that these facts gave the officers probable cause to arrest the Plaintiff under Indiana law. Because they had probable cause to arrest the Plaintiff, they could not be held liable to him for false arrest.
On the other hand, a federal district court in New York found that the officers had failed to show that they possessed probable cause to arrest the Plaintiff on the charges of criminal trespass under New York law. Yorzinski v. City of New York, 2016 WL 1270248 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 31, 2016). In resolving Yorzinski, the district court, again, noted that possessing probable cause in support of an arrest is an absolute defense.
In Yorzinski, the Plaintiff, a New York Yankees season ticket holder, was ejected from Yankee Stadium during a game and was escorted by a stadium attendant to the sidewalk outside. The Plaintiff, then, approached a group of police officers to ask for help to re-enter the stadium. However, the officers told the Plaintiff to “go away,” and the Plaintiff was subsequently arrested on the charges of criminal trespass and held overnight in jail. The charges that were later dismissed.
In denying summary judgment, the federal district court explained that an arresting officer thus does not have a duty to investigate exculpatory defenses offered by the person being arrested or to assess the credibility of unverified claims of justification before making an arrest. Jocks v. Tavernier, 316 F.3d 128, 135–36 (2d Cir.2003). At the same time, however, the failure to make a further inquiry when a reasonable person would have done so may be evidence of lack of probable cause. Manganiello v. City of New York, 612 F.3d 149, 161 (2d Cir.2010)(internal quotation marks omitted). Moreover, a police officer’s awareness of the facts supporting a defense can eliminate probable cause. Jocks, 316 F.3d at 136 (holding that an arresting officer may not “deliberately disregard facts known to him which establish justification”); Panetta v. Crowley, 460 F.3d 388, 395–96 (2d Cir.2006)(“[A]n officer may not disregard plainly exculpatory evidence.”). Finally, the district court noted that, in order to establish probable cause for arresting the Plaintiff for criminal trespass, the officers must show that (1) there was a lawful order excluding Plaintiff from the property; (2) that the order was communicated to him by a person with authority to give the order; and (3) that Plaintiff defied the order.
Considering the undisputed evidence, the district court concluded that the officers had failed to show that they possessed probable cause to arrest the Plaintiff for criminal trespass. Regardless of what the Plaintiff knew with respect to his particular location, the officers did not establish that his removal from Yankee Stadium constituted a lawful order to leave all Yankees-owned property, including the sidewalk where he was ultimately arrested, such that the officers had probable cause to arrest him for criminal trespass. The record also showed that, in arresting the Plaintiff, the officers relied upon the Plaintiff’s interactions with Yankee personnel and that they had very little personal interaction with the Plaintiff, let alone a direct, lawful command from the officers to the Plaintiff to leave the premises. As such, the district court determined that the officers failed to show that they possessed probable cause sufficient to preclude the case being presented to a jury.
In sum, probable cause is necessary, not only to effectuate an arrest, probable cause is also an absolute defense to a claim of false arrest. Accordingly, be sure that you have personal knowledge of the facts that support probable cause and that you can articulate those facts. If you can, you should be able to make short shift of any claim by an arrestee that you subjected him to a false arrest.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.