Immunity for Officer Who Arrested ‘Rail Fan’ Divides Circuit

Sampler of locomotives operated by New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including Metro-North trains east and west of the Hudson River in New York, as well as the Connecticut Commuter Rail (via Wikipedia)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Police officers who handcuffed a teenage train enthusiast they worried was trying to sabotage the railroad should not face false-arrest claims, the Second Circuit ruled Friday.

A self-described “rail fan,” Gregory Grice was 16 when his hobby sparked a 911 call on June 6, 2011.

The aspiring engineer had left school that afternoon and made himself comfortable at the Virginia Road railroad crossing in Greenburgh, New York — just north of the North White Plains stop for the Metro-North Railroad in Westchester County.

Grice is black, and the concerned resident who reported him to the police that evening said she saw a “mix-race” male acting suspiciously by the tracks, holding what appeared to be a “controller.”

What Grice actually had on him was a camera, as well as the rule book put out by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a letter from the MTA permitting him to take photographs.

When he is not photographing trains, Grice likes to attend the MTA’s public hearings and he volunteers on Saturdays at a railway museum in Danbury, Connecticut.

U.S. Circuit Judge Barrington Parker argued in a dissenting opinion Friday that the police do not deserve immunity from Grice’s false-arrest claims.

“MTA personnel were quite familiar with him and were well aware of his penchant for photographing trains,” the dissent states.

Grice was unknown, however, to Anthony McVeigh, the Greenburgh police sergeant who responded to the scene.

When the boy offered to show McVeigh his letter from the MTA, the officer opted instead to put Grice in handcuffs.

Grice was in those cuffs for 33 minutes as more officers arrived, searching the tracks for a bomb with the aid of a dog.

No bomb was found but Grice was put in a new set of handcuffs, this time belonging to an MTA officer, then placed in a cell at an MTA facility where he was interrogated and given a summons for trespass.

After that charge was dropped, Grice filed suit. The teen settled most of his claims for $24,000 but several claims against McVeigh and Lt. Frank Farina remained outstanding.

A federal judge denied the officers summary judgment, but the Second Circuit reversed 2-1 on Friday.

“It was not unreasonable for a lone officer to handcuff Grice in order to ensure that Grice could not press a detonator button on any electronic device until the tracks could be searched,” U.S. Circuit Judge Denise Jacobs wrote for the majority.

Jacobs also emphasized that “McVeigh had an objectively reasonable suspicion to detain Grice,” and that Grice’s detention by the officer never ripened into an arrest.

Judge Parker scoffed at this in the dissent.

“It is not possible rationally to conclude that these circumstances constituted anything other than an arrest,” Parker wrote. “After all, Grice was under the most complete measure and method of restraint that McVeigh had available to him and no one could believe that Grice was free to leave. No opinion of our court has ever held that handcuffing for the period of time experienced by Grice and behaving in the way he behaved was not an arrest.”

For Parker, the evidence amply demonstrates “that there was never an objectively reasonable basis to view Grice as any sort of threat.”

Judge Jacobs argued to the contrary in the lead opinion.

“True, the use of a cell phone as a remote control detonator is not a feature promoted by manufacturers; at the same time, remote detonation of a bomb or improvised explosive device by cell phone is a standard technique for terrorists,” she wrote.

In a footnote to this sentence, Jacobs notes that cellphones were used to detonate “virtually every recent attempted or actual bombing in the U.S.”

Indeed, in the same courthouse where Grice is suing, there are criminal proceedings underway against Ahmad Rahimi, who is accused of using cellphones to detonate multiple bombs in Manhattan and on the Jersey Shore.

“Other relatively recent examples include the Boston Marathon Bombing and attempts in Washington, D.C., Dallas, Florida, and outside Chicago,” the footnote continues. “About a month ago, the FBI arrested a man in Oklahoma City who attempted to blow up a vehicle containing a 1,000‐pound ammonium nitrate bomb using a cell phone as the detonating device.”

Grice is represented by Brett Klein.

McVeigh and Farina are represented by White Plains attorney Thomas J. Troetti.

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