On October 28, 2004, an instructor of microbiology and immunology at Columbia University filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the City of New York under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The plaintiff, represented by private counsel, asked the court for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that he was denied his constitutional due process right to a fair trial and was unlawfully incarcerated for 20 months due to the practices and policies of the City of New York as implemented by the New York Police Department and the New York County District Attorney's Office.
This case originated with a claim of sexual assault against the plaintiff, who was at that time a doctoral student at Columbia University. The victim, an undergraduate student at Barnard College, alleged that the plaintiff assaulted her for nearly twenty hours, stating that she had been tied up, violently raped and sodomized, beaten multiple times with a club, burned with candle wax and repeatedly gagged. A Grand Jury indicted the plaintiff on December 19, 1996 and at trial, a jury found the plaintiff guilty of kidnapping, assault and sexual assault. He was sentenced on May 29, 1998 to fifteen years to life in prison.
On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department, of the New York Supreme Court vacated the conviction due to errors in the trial court regarding the judge's application of rape-shield law. See People v. Jovanovic, 700 N.Y.S.2d 156 (1st Dept 1999). This led to a reversal of the plaintiff's conviction in December, 1999 and a remand for a new trial. On November 1, 2001 the state dismissed all charges against the plaintiff after the victim refused to testify.
On October 28, 2004, the plaintiff filed suit under 42 U.S.C §1983 and 42 U.S.C §1988, seeking $20 million dollars in damages plus attorney's fees. Specifically, the plaintiff stated multiple claims against a New York Police Department Detective for false arrest, malicious prosecution, malicious abuse of process, and denial of a fair trial. The plaintiff also claimed that the Assistant District Attorney (ADA) assigned to the case deprived the plaintiff of his right to a fair trial. Lastly, the plaintiff claimed that the City of New York maintained policies and customs that gave rise to the violation of the plaintiff's constitutional rights.
On December 21, 2009, defendants moved for summary judgment on all of the plaintiff's claims. Critical to the plaintiff's claims against the NYPD Detective was the plaintiff's allegation that the Detective fabricated evidence regarding the presence of candles in the plaintiff's apartment and that this false information unfairly influenced the jury, depriving the plaintiff of his right to a fair trial.
The District Court found that the Detective's allegedly false testimony could not, by itself, have resulted in the deprivation of the plaintiff's liberty because it was material to only one of the eleven charges against him. Additionally, probable cause is a complete defense to malicious prosecution and malicious abuse of process claims under New York law. Because a Grand Jury indictment creates a presumption of probable cause that the plaintiff failed to rebut, the District Court granted summary judgment to the defendant on both these claims.
The plaintiff also alleged that the Assistant District Attorney assigned to his criminal trial made extrajudicial statements that violated the ADA's ethical responsibilities and deprived the plaintiff of a fair trial. Although the plaintiff demonstrated that the ADA did make statements to the press, he failed to show that any juror was prejudiced by the ensuing news coverage. Accordingly, the District Court held that no reasonable juror could find that the plaintiff had been deprived of his right to a fair trial.
The plaintiff also sought to hold the New York District Attorney's Office and the New York Police Department liable for the allegedly unconstitutional acts of its agents. The plaintiff claimed that these municipal entities had official policies or customs of making inflammatory statements to the press that were prejudicial against defendants, which deprived them of their constitutional right to a fair trial. While the plaintiff had examples of such improper leaks in the instant case, the District Court found that the plaintiff failed to provide evidence that would adequately prove a policy or custom of the agencies in question.
On September 28, 2012, the District Court (Judge Paul A. Crotty) ruled in favor of the defendants, and granted their motion for summary judgment in its entirety. The plaintiff appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which on August 28, 2012, affirmed the District Court's grant of summary judgment.Kayla Arslanian - 02/21/2014