The Second Circuit recently issued a lengthy ruling that upheld a false arrest and excessive force judgment in favor of a 17 year-old plaintiff who was awarded $196,500 in damages. Here I discuss the second plaintiff's claim, which lost at trial. The Court of Appeals ordered a retrial for this plaintiff.
The case is Dancy v. McGinley, decided on December 7. While Elting won his false arrest/excessive force claims, the jury rejected Dancy's excessive force claim. The Second Circuit (Chin, Livingston and Carney) says the trial court did not give the proper jury instruction on Dancy's excessive force claim.
Officer Williams testified that, at the time of Dancy's arrest, he deliberately bent Dancy over a police car but that he did not cause Dancy to suffer his injuries, which included a broken jaw. He also said he never intended to harm Dancy. The trial court instructed the jury that it had to find that Williams "acted intentionally or recklessly" rather than "merely negligently" in his interaction with Dancy. The court suggested that if Williams' actions were "merely negligent," Dancy could not win the case. The jury ruled against Dancy.
Here is the lay of the land in Fourth Amendment cases alleging excessive force. Plaintiffs "must prove the officer intended to commit acts that constituted a seizure in the first instance." But intent is not relevant "as to the officer's underlying motivation for his actions during the seizure. ... An officer's good intentions are immaterial and will not justify an objectively reasonable use of force." In other words, "objectively unreasonable actions during the course of a seizure, even if based on a mistake, are unconstitutional." Once a seizure is initiated, the officer's objectively unreasonable conduct may violate the Fourth Amendment, even if he did not intend to injure the plaintiff. While Fourth Amendment cases require intentional actions by police officers, "in the excessive force context, the intent in question can only be the intent to perform some action, not that a particular result be achieved." In reaching these legal conclusions, Judge Chin draws in part from cases from around the Circuits.
What this means for Dancy is that the district court should not have charged the jury that "if the defendant's acts were merely negligent ... the jury must find that the plaintiff has established his claim." The jury could have believed from this instruction that an officer must have intended the results of his actions or consciously disregarded their consequences. Dancy could have won this case simply by proving that Williams applied some degree of force and did so deliberately. The jury was not able to conclude that Williams intentionally used force, but that he was not liable if he did not intend that the force cause Dancy's injuries. The Court stated:
Under the district court's instruction, the jury could have concluded that there was no violation because Williams did not intend to use enough force to break Dancy's jaw. But given Williams's admission that he intentionally used some amount of force on Dancy, it is irrelevant whether he intentionally applied force sufficient to break Dancy's jaw or otherwise intended to injure Dancy.
Stephen Bergstein is a civil rights lawyer in Orange County, N.Y. He has briefed or argued more than 200 appeals in the state and federal courts.