Submitted: November 18, 2014
Upon Appeal from the Court of Common Pleas
Michael F. McTaggart, Deputy Attorney General Joseph J. Longobardi, III, Esquire
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff was minding his own business, ordering breakfast in a fast-food restaurant when a police officer suddenly confronted him. With little warning, the officer took Plaintiff to the floor, handcuffed him and, in the process, allegedly injured him. As it happened, the police officer was searching for a suspect in an attempted armed robbery that had occurred shortly before and nearby. The officer, relying on a broadcast that the suspect had been seen entering the restaurant, incorrectly assumed Plaintiff was the robber. So, the officer acted first and asked questions later. Everyone now agrees, as Plaintiff puts it, "[Plaintiff] was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time." Thus, on its face, Plaintiff's complaint was hardly frivolous.
Plaintiff sued the police officer, the Delaware State Police, and the State of Delaware, alleging excessive force, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, and violation of Plaintiff's civil rights under color of law. The Court of Common Pleas granted partial summary judgment on the false imprisonment and civil rights claims. The rest were heard in a one day, bench trial ending in a verdict for Defendants, finding the officer's use of force was reasonable under the circumstances and, therefore, justified. That finding eliminated all of Plaintiff's claims as they allege, one way or another, that the police officer acted unreasonably. Plaintiff perfected a timely appeal.
In summary, this is a textbook example where an appellate court is asked to re-weigh a lower court's verdict in a case that turned on its facts and could have gone either way. Having lost at trial, Plaintiff now presents the facts in a light favorable to him, arguing that his is the only reasonable way to view the evidence.
It is axiomatic, however, that on appeal the court views the record in a reasonable light most favorable to the party who won at trial. The court has reviewed the record carefully in the proper light. While Plaintiff is correct that there was sufficient evidence to support a verdict in his favor had the trier of fact seen it Plaintiff's way, the evidence also supported Defendants' verdict.
The core dispute concerns the police officer's hurried decision to manhandle and handcuff Plaintiff. Among others, the trial court saw Plaintiff and the officer testify. It decided who was more believable when the testimony was in conflict, and it concluded from all the evidence that the officer's conduct was in the line of duty and reasonable. As discussed in the trial court's opinion and below, the verdict was based on substantial evidence and a correct view of the law. Accordingly, the verdict is safe.
As mentioned, this unfortunate incident began with an attempted robbery at knife point on March 20, 2009 at 8:19 a.m., in the area around the Talleyville firehouse. The initial police broadcasts said the victim may have been stabbed at Chuck E. Cheese's® on Silverside Road, and the suspect was seen entering the nearby parking lot of the Arby's® across from the firehouse. A later broadcast from the fireboard also included a general description of the suspect and his clothing, including a white hat, dark pants, and tan Timberland® boots. There is, however, a disconnect between the description the victim called-in and the description on which Trooper Yeldell relied. The victim reported that the suspect "had a black hoodie on and blue jeans, and a white T-shirt underneath."
Based on the record, this court believes the description on which Trooper Yeldell relied came from someone at the firehouse who heard the initial police dispatch, saw Plaintiff entering the Arby's® and who then incorrectly assumed Plaintiff was the suspect. Thus, Trooper Yeldell correctly matched Plaintiff with the person incorrectly described as the suspect. That surmise, however, is not dispositive.
The dispositive facts are that in several, distinct ways, Plaintiff matched the suspect's description on which Trooper Yeldell relied. Plaintiff, for example, was wearing a white hat, dark pants, and the tan boots, as described. Trooper Yeldell's belief that Plaintiff was the suspect was reenforced, albeit somewhat subjectively, by the officer's observations in the restaurant. Most significantly, no one else matched the description, and Plaintiff's behavior was "suspicious." His interaction with the counter-person looked "awkward." Also, the officer could not see Plaintiff's left hand. The officer's concern that ...