(CN) – Police had probable cause to arrest two men they suspected of a hit-and-run involving a teenager who happened to be a cop’s son, a federal judge ruled.
But the officers cannot dismiss claims that they used excessive force by allegedly grabbing one man by the throat and calling him a “cocky bitch.”
Two 13-year-old boys reported to police in July 2007 that they had been harassed while riding their bikes in Attleboro, Mass., a city south of Boston on the Rhode Island border. They said a car drove up behind them, and the man in the front passenger seat began swearing. Chistopher Redlund, the son of an Attleboro detective, said the car hit him when he told the driver and its passengers to go away. As Redlund flipped over his handlebars, the car fled.
When Redlund called his father, Detective Alex Aponte, to tell him what happened, he described the car as a two-door silver car with a rubber strip hanging from the passenger side. He said there had been four young black men in the car when it hit him.
Aponte quickly found a car that fit Redlund’s description about a mile away. Finding that the engine of the Honda Accord was still warm, officers took its owner, Robert Robinson, and his son, Mario, into custody.
At the police station, Aponte took Redlund outside, showed him a row of cars and asked him if he could identify the car that hit him. Redlund pointed out Robinson’s car to his father.
Later, Redlund watched the police interview Mario on closed-circuit television. Though he did not initially recognize Mario as an occupant of the car that hit him, he changed his mind when Mario took off his hat. Redlund told Aponte that Mario “looks like the kid because of his hairstyle.”
Redlund did not identify Robinson, but officers arrested both men and charged them with a hit-and-run.
Prosecutors eventually dropped all charges against the Robinsons, who then sued the city of Attleboro and eight individual police officers, but not Aponte.
The Robinsons claimed that Officer Timothy Cook Sr. grabbed Mario by the throat during the booking process, held him against the wall, hit him in the face and called him a “cocky bitch” before carrying him to his cell.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein partly granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in part, but upheld the claims for excessive force, assault and battery, and conspiracy.
“The plaintiffs have presented evidence which, if believed, would establish that the defendants attacked Mario by grabbing him by the throat, pinning him against the wall by the throat, and smacking him in the face without any provocation or justification whatsoever,” Dein said. “Under such circumstances, a factfinder could conclude that the defendants’ use of force was excessive and violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights.”
“Because it would have been clear to a reasonable officer, based on the circumstances presented by the plaintiffs, that the defendants’ conduct in attacking Mario for doing nothing more than making a telephone call was unreasonably excessive, the defendants are not entitled to summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity,” she added.
Cook nevertheless had probable cause to arrest the Robinsons, according to the decision.
The Robinsons had claimed that Redlund made the identifications because of “a textbook case of a suggestive show-up or line-up, but the judge disagreed.
“There is no evidence that Aponte or any of the other officers told either of the witnesses which car to identify, or otherwise instructed them to implicate the plaintiffs,” Cook wrote.
“The fact that the witnesses declined to implicate Robert, even though they knew he was suspected of being the driver of the vehicle that had hit Redlund, shows that the identification process was not so suggestive as to undermine the reliability of the witnesses’ statements,” she added.