New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

PITTS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2001-019-013, Claim No. 100687


Synopsis


Claimant failed to establish prima facie claim for malicious prosecution; Claim dismissed.

Case Information

UID:
2001-019-013
Claimant(s):
BRENDA PITTS
Claimant short name:
PITTS
Footnote (claimant name) :

Defendant(s):
THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
100687
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Judge:
FERRIS D. LEBOUS
Claimant's attorney:
EARL D. BUTLER, P.C.BY: David E. Butler, Esq., of counsel
Defendant's attorney:
HON. ELIOT SPITZER, ATTORNEY GENERAL
BY: Carol Cocchiola, Assistant Attorney General, of counsel
Third-party defendant's attorney:

Signature date:
June 27, 2001
City:
Binghamton
Comments:

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)



Decision
Claimant, Brenda Pitts, alleges that she was maliciously prosecuted by the State of New York when, on March 8, 1999, she was arrested and charged with trespass and obstructing governmental administration while at the New York State Division of Parole Offices located at the New York State Office, 44 Hawley Street, Binghamton, New York. The trial of this Claim was held in the Binghamton District on April 23, 2001 and was bifurcated. Consequently, this Decision addresses the issue of liability only.


The facts are fairly straightforward. Claimant, Brenda Pitts, is the mother of Raymond Jefferies, who was convicted approximately 14
years ago of manslaughter and sentenced to State prison. After approximately 10 years of incarceration, Raymond Jefferies was paroled in 1997 and initially relocated to the Washington, D.C. area returning to his hometown of Binghamton, New York, sometime in December of 1997. Upon his return he was under the supervision and direction of the New York State Division of Parole here in the Binghamton District.

On March 8, 1999, Raymond Jefferies' parole was violated by his Parole Officer John Lattimer after Lattimer received a complaint of threats of bodily injury and assault from Jefferies' then girlfriend, Kim Gassner. Upon learning of the complaint being filed against her son, the Claimant, Brenda Pitts, went to the New York State Division of Parole Offices (hereinafter "Division of Parole") at the State Office Building in Binghamton to meet with Mr. Lattimer to find out what had happened to her son and whether he in fact had been arrested and incarcerated on a parole violation. She arrived at the Division of Parole in the afternoon of March 8, 1999
, and was met at the offices by John Lattimer who granted the Claimant access from the waiting room into the secure inner office area of the Division of Parole. Upon learning that her son had been violated and reincarcerated on the violation, Claimant became emotional and began to cry. Parole Officer Lattimer was attempting to calm the Claimant when the District Supervisor Al Epstein approached and confirmed to the Claimant that her son had in fact been arrested. Mr. Epstein advised Claimant to be certain to stay away from Kim Gassner, the complainant in the underlying parole violation. At this point the Claimant accused Epstein of having a grudge against her son alleging that Epstein had been a constant source of aggravation and harassment to her son while he was incarcerated at Woodbourne Correctional Facility.

Recognizing that no useful purpose could come from a continuation of this line of conversation, both Epstein and Lattimer advised Claimant to leave the Parole Office. Claimant was still emotional and crying as Epstein began to escort her out of the secure inner office area and into the lobby area of the Division of Parole Offices. Claimant began pushing back and resisting efforts to leave the building. At this point, Parole Officer Epstein told Lattimer and others to "call the police"[1]
. Parole Officer Lattimer tried to calm the situation and separate both Epstein and the Claimant due to the presence of other parolees in the waiting area.

At this time Parole Officer Jones entered, taking the Claimant from the waiting area and into the hallway of the State Office Building and toward the elevator. At that time, Parole Officer Epstein had returned to his inner office to get his handcuffs, and returned to the hallway/elevator area where he found the Claimant and placed her under arrest. She was then escorted from the State Office Building and charged by Parole Officer Epstein with criminal trespass and obstructing governmental administration. She was arraigned in Binghamton City Court on these charges on
March 10, 1999, and subsequently tried and acquitted of these charges after a jury trial on May 13, 1999.

Claimant called her son Raymond Jefferies to testify at trial regarding his prior experiences and alleged antagonistic relationship with Parole Office Al Epstein. Mr. Jefferies alleges that he had numerous run ins with Mr. Epstein while he was incarcerated at Woodbourne Correctional Facility where Mr. Epstein was the resident Parole Officer. He further indicated that upon his release to Parole in Binghamton he again ran across Mr. Epstein who "went out of his way to make his life miserable."


To the contrary, Parole Officer Epstein testified that he was aware of Raymond Jefferies but denied a prior history of "bad blood" or antagonism. Mr. Epstein simply acknowledged that he did know Raymond Jefferies, not from his prior incarceration at Woodbourne, but as an individual who was under his supervision while on parole and residing in the Binghamton, New York area. He denied any type of long term harassing or antagonistic relationship with Mr. Jefferies.


In order to establish a claim for malicious prosecution a claimant must establish that (1) there was a "[c]ommencement or continuation of a criminal proceeding by the defendant against [a claimant], (2) the termination of the proceeding in favor of the accused, (3) the absence of probable cause for the criminal proceeding and (4) actual malice [citation omitted]." (
Broughton v State of New York, 37 NY2d 451, 457 cert denied by Schanbarger v Kellogg, 423 U.S. 929).

In the instant case, the first two elements are factually undisputed by either Claimant or the State. A criminal proceeding was commenced against the Claimant on or about March 10
, 1999, when she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass and obstructing governmental administration. Those proceedings were subsequently terminated in favor of the Claimant when on May 13, 1999 she was acquitted of those charges after a jury trial. It is the third and fourth elements of the tort of malicious prosecution, namely the absence of probable cause for the criminal proceeding and actual malice, that prove more problematic for Claimant on the facts of the instant case.

A prosecution is said to have been undertaken without probable cause when no reasonably prudent person would have believed claimant was guilty of the crimes charged, given the facts known or reasonably known to be true to the defendant at the time the prosecution was initiated. (
Munoz v City of New York, 18 NY2d 6; Colon v City of New York, 60 NY2d 78). In the instant case the Court finds that, while well-intentioned, Brenda Pitts did become emotional and irrational while in the offices of the Division of Parole. The Court further finds that Brenda Pitts did refuse requests to leave the offices peaceably and had to be escorted out. Unfortunately, due to the emotional state of the Claimant while being escorted from the offices, the situation escalated into a degree of physical resistence and shoving which clearly provided probable cause, at the very least, for her arrest on a charge of criminal trespass in that "she remained unlawfully in the offices after having been asked on at least two occasions to vacate the premises."[2] Moreover, while other methods may have been employed, and while the Court believes that arrest was not absolutely necessary here, the Court will not substitute its judgment nor second-guess the motives or actions of the Parole Officers who were faced with a much more delicate and potentially volatile situation due to the presence of numerous parolees in the outer office area at the time this incident took place. Consequently, the Court believes that Parole Officer Epstein did in fact have probable cause to charge Brenda Pitts with at least the crime of criminal trespass.

Moreover, the Court finds that the element of malice is also lacking on these facts. Malice is a necessary element to establish a malicious prosecution cause of action. It may be defined as "actual malice" or "malice in fact", and may be proven by circumstantial evidence. (
Nardelli v Stamberg, 44 NY2d 500, 502). Additionally:
the 'actual malice' element of a malicious prosecution action does not require a [claimant] to prove that the defendant was motivated by spite or hatred, although it will of course be satisfied by such proof. Rather, it means that the defendant must have commenced the prior criminal proceeding due to a wrong or improper motive, something other than a desire to see the ends of justice served [citations omitted].

(Nardelli v Stamberg, supra, 44 NY2d 500, 502-503). Here, Claimant attempted to establish that Parole Officer Al Epstein was motivated by spite and/or hatred of her son Raymond Jefferies and arrested Claimant as a way to further these spiteful and malicious ends. Upon weighing all the proof at trial, including the testimony of Raymond Jefferies, this Court finds that Claimant has not met her burden of establishing malice on the part of Parole Officer Epstein by a preponderance of the credible evidence.

Based upon the foregoing, it is the opinion of the Court that Claim No. 100687,
Brenda Pitts v State of New York, be, and the same hereby is, DISMISSED.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.


June 27, 2001
Binghamton, New York

HON. FERRIS D. LEBOUS
Judge of the Court of Claims




[1]Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the Court's trial notes.
[2]Claimant was charged with Criminal Trespass in the Third Degree which states that: "[a] person is guilty of criminal trespass in the third degree when he knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in a building or upon real property...which is fenced or otherwise enclosed in a manner designed to exclude intruders.... (Penal Law 140.10 [a]; emphasis added). Parole Officer Lattimer and Epstein both testified that the physical layout of the Division of Parole's offices included a locked interior inner office, which Claimant refused to vacate.