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Helmy v. City of Jersey City

December 15, 2003


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.


(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

The Court determines whether the disconnection between the jury's finding in favor of the plaintiff in respect of his claim for malicious prosecution coupled with the directed verdict in favor of defendants on plaintiff's claim of false arrest rendered the malicious prosecution verdict inconsistent and therefore invalid.

On December 12, 1997, plaintiff was pulled over by the defendant officers for a moving traffic violation. One of the officers and plaintiff knew each other from a 1995 encounter that resulted in plaintiff's arrest and trial. In that matter, plaintiff was acquitted of all charges except resisting arrest.

The parties' accounts of the 1997 traffic stop differ. Plaintiff contends that he was not asked for his credentials or to step out of the vehicle, and the officer involved in the prior incident opened the driver's door, grabbed plaintiff's jacket and asked him"where's your lawyer now?" Plaintiff fled and the officers pursued. According to plaintiff, he pulled over when he saw another police vehicle, believing it was safe to stop with more officers present. Plaintiff claims that when he stepped out of his vehicle, officers had their weapons drawn and he"got down" immediately as instructed. He testified that the officers kicked and beat him before and after he was handcuffed. Plaintiff claims that after he was taken to the precinct he was further assaulted and denied medical attention.

The defendant officers contend that plaintiff produced inadequate credentials when stopped and that he became increasingly hostile, drove off, and struck them with his car. They also contend that plaintiff stopped after fleeing because he was trapped in traffic and that plaintiff"charged" the officer from the prior incident, knocking him to the ground. They deny assaulting plaintiff and claim that he was processed according to procedure.

Plaintiff was indicted on four counts of third-degree aggravated assault, two counts of second-degree eluding while creating a risk of death or injury, one count of third-degree resisting arrest while using or threatening to use physical force or violence, and one count of third-degree terroristic threats. The jury found plaintiff not guilty on all counts.

Plaintiff filed suit against defendants asserting state and federal constitutional violations, statutory claims and common law claims. In essence, the claims alleged false arrest, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, malicious prosecution, negligent training and supervision, use of excessive force and conspiracy.

At the close of evidence at trial, the court granted defendants' motion for a directed verdict on the counts of intentional infliction of emotional distress, unlawful search, assault and battery, and all claims for failure to supervise and train defendant officers. The court denied the motion with respect to the claims of excessive force, conspiracy, malicious prosecution, and false arrest. The parties agreed that the court would instruct the jury on all claims except false arrest. For that claim, a special interrogatory addressing probable cause was submitted to the jury in conjunction with the verdict sheet, asking the jury to decide whether the officer requested the documents for the van that plaintiff was driving when he was initially stopped. The parties and the court apparently assumed that the jury's answer would resolve the question of probable cause to arrest. After the court learned the jury's answer to that question, the court was to decide whether false arrest remained a viable claim.

The jury found unanimously that the officer asked for the documents. It provided the answer to the court, and then continued its deliberations. The court granted defendants' motion for a directed verdict on the false arrest claim based on a finding of probable cause for the arrest. The court explained that if a driver refused or did not produce paperwork for the car it would be reasonable for the police to ask the driver to step out of the car and, when the driver then took off, it was reasonable to believe that he was eluding them and to place him under arrest. Plaintiff did not appeal any of the directed verdicts to the Appellate Division.

Thereafter, the jury returned a unanimous verdict declaring that plaintiff had proved neither unreasonable use of force nor conspiracy, but that he had proved that the officers deprived him of his constitutional rights by maliciously prosecuting him. The jury awarded plaintiff $500,000 in compensatory damages. Defendants moved for JNOV or, in the alternative, remittitur. The court granted the motion for JNOV, finding that the jury's verdict on malicious prosecution was against the weight of the evidence because it required a finding that there was an absence of probable cause for the arrest, and probable cause had been established. The Appellate Division affirmed.

HELD: The trial court erred in applying the standard applicable to defendant's motion for JNOV. Because there were facts, with inferences in favor of the plaintiff, on which a jury could have returned a malicious prosecution verdict, the jury's verdict is reinstated.

1. To establish malicious prosecution, a plaintiff must prove (1) that the criminal action was instituted by the defendant against the plaintiff, (2) that it was actuated by malice, (3) that there was an absence of probable cause for the proceeding, and (4) that it was terminated favorably to the plaintiff. Prongs one and four are not at issue here because defendants conceded them. At issue is whether there was probable cause to pursue legal proceedings and whether the prosecution was actuated by malice. (Pp. 9-10).

2. In analyzing these two elements on the JNOV motion, the trial court was governed by the following standard: If, accepting as true all the evidence supporting the position of the party defending against the motion and according him the benefit of all inferences that can reasonably and legitimately be deduced therefrom, reasonable minds could differ, the motion must be denied. In applying that standard here, the court went astray. There were facts on which a jury could have returned a malicious prosecution verdict. Plaintiff denied any aggravated assault against the officers, denied threatening or using physical force or creating a risk of injury or death, and denied having made terroristic threats. He acknowledged leaving the scene, but claims that action was prompted by fear based on his prior dealings with the officer. He denied that he presented any risk to the officers in doing so. A jury agreed, acquitting plaintiff of all of those charges. (P. 10).

3. The jury's finding that the officer requested plaintiff's credentials, coupled with the plaintiff's acknowledgment that he drove away, did not affect the validity of the verdict. Those facts could establish at most that police had probable cause to arrest and prosecute him for eluding, not that they had probable cause to level four aggravated assault charges along with second-degree resisting arrest and terroristic threats. Indeed, if the jury believed ...

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