Plaintiff Arrested By NYPD Officer For Violation of Protective Order

Did NYPD Have Probable Cause? Or Was City Liable For False Arrest?  

Travis Marshal filed suit against the City of New York arising out of his allegedly false arrest. At his examination before trial, Marshal testified that he was at home in his apartment at 1649 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, New York, and went downstairs to the lobby to get some fresh air at approximately 3:30 p.m.  While downstairs, he observed Donald Wilkinson, a former resident of the building, speaking to a female police officer. The police officer with whom Wilkinson was speaking asked Marshal to approach them. After approaching, Marshal asked Wilkinson about fifty dollars he believed Wilkinson owed him. The police officer then informed him that Wilkinson had an order of protection against him and arrested him for violating the order. 

The arresting  NYPD officer, Caroline Gehm, testified that on the date of the arrest, she received a report from a 911 dispatcher about a dispute and violation of an order of protection at 1649 Amsterdam Avenue. Gehm testified that the 911 dispatcher stated, specifically, that Wilkinson had reported that Marshal had told him he would kill him after that order of protection expired.

At the scene, Gehm spoke to Wilkinson, who stated that he had an order of protection against Marshal and that, earlier that day, Marshal told him he was going to kill him when that order of protection expired. Gehm subsequently verified that the order of protection existed. She testified that while she was standing with Wilkinson outside the building, Marshal walked outside and Wilkinson identified him. She added that when she spoke with Marshal prior to his arrest, he stated that he had previously asked Wilkinson about the fifty dollars owed to him.

Gehm testified that she vaguely recalled that Wilkinson “either used to live in the building or lived in the building” but subsequently stated that she was aware, on the date of the incident, that Wilkinson currently lived in the Bronx. At her deposition, Gehm reviewed the order of protection issued against Marshal which had not yet expired.

The City moved for an order granting it summary judgment dismissing Marshal’s complaint on the grounds that Gehm had probable cause  for the arrest.

In opposition, Marshal argued, in essence, that

[t]his case fundamentally involves a police officer who acted with a “trigger finger.” She arrested plaintiff only because she witnessed plaintiff say to another person, who had a three-year-old Order of Protection going back to a time when he lived in plaintiffs building, and who had traveled from the Bronx to plaintiffs Harlem address, “All I asked him was where is my $50.” According to the officer that statement, made in front of the protected person, put plaintiff in violation of the Order of Protection.

The City met its burden here through undisputed proof establishing that Officer Gehm had probable cause to arrest Marshal. Probable cause to believe that a person committed a crime is a complete defense to a cause of action alleging false arrest or false imprisonment. Probable cause requires only information sufficient to support a reasonable belief that an offense has been committed and generally, information provided by an identified citizen accusing another individual of a specific crime is legally sufficient to provide the police with probable cause to arrest.

As a general rule, information from an identified citizen accusing another individual of the commission of a specific crime is sufficient to provide the police with probable cause to arrest. And probable cause is established, absent materially impeaching circumstances, where the victim of an offense communicates to the arresting officer information affording a credible ground for believing the offense was committed and identifies the accused as the perpetrator.

Probable cause for an arrest existed as it was undisputed that Gehm was informed by Wilkinson that Marshal had violated an order of protection-the existence of which she verified-by threatening to kill him. The argument that Gehm did not have probable cause to arrest Marshal relied on a false premise, i.e., that this arrest was based on Wilkinson’s statement that Marshal had threatened to murder him in the future, not his inquiry about the fifty dollars.

Neither were there any materially impeaching circumstances present such that Gehm should have questioned Wilkinson’s credibility. To the extent that Marshal denied making a threat against Wilkinson, the mere denial by the accused of the complainant’s claims does not constitute materially impeaching circumstances or grounds for questioning the complainant’s credibility so as to raise a question of fact as to probable cause. Rather, such conflicting evidence, uncovered in the course of the police investigation, was relevant to the issue of whether guilt beyond a reasonable doubt could have been proven at a criminal trial, not to the initial determination of the existence of probable cause.

And the fact that Wilkinson was returning to the building, his former home, did not on its face constitute a materially impeaching circumstance mandating further inquiry by Gehm. There was no evidence to suggest that Wilkinson returned to the building with the intent to cause Marshal to violate the order of protection, let alone that Marshal ever suggested such a possibility to Gehm.

The City’s motion to dismiss Marshal’s complaint was granted.

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