New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
BROWN v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2010-009-106, Claim No. 103284

Synopsis

Claimant's claim seeking damages based upon allegations of excessive force by correction officers at Oneida Correctional Facility was dismissed.

Case information

UID: 2010-009-106
Claimant(s): ANTONIO BROWN #92A3649
Claimant short name: BROWN
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 103284
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.
Claimant's attorney: ANTONIO BROWN, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney: HON. ANDREW M. CUOMO
Attorney General
BY: Thomas M. Trace, Esq.,
Senior Attorney,
Of Counsel.
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: December 23, 2010
City: Syracuse
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant, an inmate under the care and custody of the State Department of Correctional Services (DOCS), alleges that he suffered personal injuries when he was assaulted by certain correction officers in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) at Oneida Correctional Facility (Oneida) on August 28, 2000. In his claim, claimant also alleges that the following day, at approximately 8:00 a.m., two unnamed correction officers came into his cell, and one officer struck claimant in the head with a clipboard, and the other officer slapped claimant against the head with his hand.

At the trial of this claim, claimant provided his own testimony, and also offered into evidence the Interrogatories of Correction Officer Timothy Clark (Exhibit 7) and Sergeant Barnes (Exhibit 1). Correction Officer Robert LaBella and Sergeant Richard Jordan testified on behalf of the State.

Claimant testified that approximately 7:00 a.m. on the day of the incident in question, he was in his cell in the SHU at Oneida when he was denied his breakfast by Correction Officer Clark. Claimant then started to call out, demanding his breakfast, and Officer Clark directed him to stop. Claimant testified that he continued to call out for approximately 45 minutes until Sergeant Jordan, accompanied by four other correction officers, appeared and removed him from his cell. Claimant further testified that Sergeant Jordan said that he wanted to speak with him and claimant was taken to the "Day Room". Claimant was told to assume the "search position"(1) and he was pat frisked. Claimant testified that while he was being frisked, Sergeant Jordan told him that he doesn't speak to inmates, and one of the officers then pushed his head into the wall, telling him to shut up. Claimant further testified that one of the officers then grabbed him around his neck and tackled him to the floor, and that one of the officers then punched him on the side of his head, causing him to lose consciousness. Claimant testified that when he regained consciousness, he was tightly handcuffed, and had urinated on himself.

Claimant also testified that the following morning, at approximately 8:00 a.m., two unnamed correction officers came into his cell. One of the officers struck claimant in the head with a clipboard, and the other officer slapped claimant on the head.

Correction Officer LaBella testified that he was serving breakfast on August 28, 2000 at Unit 19-W, the Secured Housing Unit at Oneida. He testified that he started work at approximately 6:45 a.m. that morning, with his shift ending at 3:00 p.m. Officer LaBella testified that he was serving breakfast to the inmates in SHU, but that he did not serve claimant his breakfast. Officer LaBella testified that in order to receive breakfast, an inmate must be visibly present and must be standing at his cell door. He testified that on this morning, claimant was laying on his bed facing the wall, and as a result he did not serve claimant his breakfast.

Officer LaBella testified that after he finished serving breakfast to the unit, claimant began yelling that he wanted his breakfast, and he ordered claimant to stop this yelling. Officer LaBella testified that claimant continued to yell, that claimant swore at him and "indicated" that he had a weapon by placing his hand under his right thigh and gesturing to Officer LaBella, as if he wanted Officer LaBella to enter his cell.

Officer LaBella testified that he then left the area to notify a supervisor (Sergeant Jordan), and that he returned shortly thereafter with Sergeant Jordan and two other correction officers (including Officer Mullen) at approximately 8:05 a.m. They removed claimant from his cell, and conducted a "pat frisk" in an open area outside of claimant's cell, and not in the "Day Room". Officer LaBella testified that during the "pat frisk" procedure, claimant had his hands placed against a wall. During the frisk, however, as Officer Mullen was bent over frisking claimant's right leg, claimant pushed off from the wall, swinging his right elbow, and narrowly missed Officer Mullen's head. Claimant was then secured by a "controlled takedown", was placed on the floor and handcuffed. Officer LaBella testified that claimant was not kicked or punched by the officers during this takedown, that he did not experience any loss of consciousness, and that he did not urinate on himself. Officer LaBella testified that claimant was then removed to a different unit two floors down from his cell.

Officer LaBella reviewed a series of photographs taken of the claimant following this incident (collectively marked as Exhibit B) and testified that the shorts worn by claimant appeared to be dry in those photographs.

Under cross-examination, Officer LaBella testified that he did not sign the logbook for Unit 19-W on the day of the incident. He also testified, when questioned, that there was no entry in the logbook indicating any incident involving claimant at 7:10 that morning. He testified that the logbook did show that claimant (inmate 19W18) was transferred to cell 3 between 8:40 a.m. and 9:20 a.m.

Officer LaBella, when questioned, specifically reaffirmed that claimant had not been taken to the "Day Room" area for the "pat frisk", but that it had been done in an open area.

Lieutenant Richard Jordan, who was the Sergeant on duty in this unit at that time, testified that he was present at the time of the incident in question, which occurred at approximately 8:05 a.m. He completed a "use of force" report (Exhibit A) as well as a memo to the superintendent providing details of the incident. Sergeant Jordan testified that he completed this report that day.

Under cross-examination, Lieutenant Jordan had little specific recollection about the information that had been provided to him by Officer LaBella with regard to the initial confrontation at claimant's cell, which occurred at approximately 7:10 a.m. He did not recall exactly what was said at that time, and did not recall what actions were taken by him between 7:10 a.m. and 8:05 a.m. He was questioned by claimant as to why Officer Mullen was directed to accompany him when he went to claimant's cell at 8:05 a.m. Lieutenant Jordan responded that he preferred having an officer who was not involved in the original incident conduct the "pat frisk" procedure, and therefore he had directed Officer Mullen to accompany him to claimant's cell.

When further questioned, Lieutenant Jordan responded that he had ordered claimant to be removed from his cell so that he could speak with him as well as conduct the "pat frisk" procedure. When questioned about the particulars of the incident, Lieutenant Jordan specifically recalled claimant swinging his elbow at Officer Mullen, and called it one of the most violent incidents he had ever witnessed during his career, necessitating the "controlled takedown".

Lieutenant Jordan also testified that he did not recall as to whether claimant's cell was searched and did not recall that any dangerous contraband was found, but acknowledged that an inmate's cell is "routinely searched" when the inmate is moved.

DISCUSSION

As part of their responsibility of maintaining order and discipline in correctional facilities, correction officers may, in certain circumstances, resort to the use of physical force, but "only such degree of force as is reasonably required" (7 NYCRR 251-1.2[b]). The limited circumstances in which the use of force is permitted by correction officers are defined by regulation as follows:

"[a]n employee shall not lay hands on or strike an inmate unless the employee reasonably believes that the physical force to be used is reasonably necessary: for self-defense; to prevent injury to person or property; to enforce compliance with a lawful direction; to quell a disturbance; or to prevent an escape." (7 NYCRR 251-1.2[d]).

As is often the case in claims based upon allegations concerning the use of excessive force, the claimant and defendant's witnesses provided the Court with sharply contrasting testimony with regard to the particulars of this incident.

To summarize, claimant testified that it was Officer Clark, and not Officer LaBella, who delivered breakfast that morning (and failed to provide claimant with his breakfast), and that it was Officer Clark, and not Officer LaBella, with whom claimant engaged in a shouting argument when he did not receive his breakfast. Claimant also testified that when Sergeant Jordan and the other correction officers came to his cell, he was taken to the "Day Room", out of sight of any other inmates, and which was where, during his "pat frisk", that he was knocked to the floor, punched, and kicked, causing him to lose consciousness and urinate on himself, all without any provocation on his part.

Defendant's witnesses, on the other hand, testified that it was Officer LaBella who delivered breakfast that morning and with whom claimant engaged in the shouting argument. Additionally, defendant's witnesses testified that the "pat frisk" was conducted outside of claimant's cell, in full view of other inmates, and that their actions consisted of a "controlled takedown" in response to an aggressive act (the swinging of his elbow) by claimant.

In these cases, the credibility of the witnesses is often the dispositive factor (Davis v State of New York, 203 AD2d 234), and the Court must evaluate this credibility, as well as examine the specific circumstances of the incident, in order to determine whether the force used was excessive or unreasonable (Wester v State of New York, 247 AD2d 468; Lewis v State of New York, 223 AD2d 800; Quillen v State of New York, 191 AD2d 31; Arnold v State of New York, 108 AD2d 1021, appeal dismissed 65 NY2d 723).

In this particular matter, claimant apparently realized that credibility was crucial in determining liability, as he conducted an in-depth cross-examination of defendant's two witnesses. Additionally, in his post-trial memorandum, claimant made reference to inconsistent statements of the witnesses (when compared to their Interrogatories), as well as discrepancies as to time and records maintained in the daily logbook.

After consideration of all the evidence, as well as its review of the entire trial testimony, the Court credits the testimony of defendant's witnesses, Officer LaBella and Sergeant Jordan, as to their recounting of the events of that morning. As a result, the Court finds that the actions taken by the correction officers were reasonable and necessary, taken in response to claimant's act of swinging his elbow at Officer Mullen during the "pat frisk" procedure. Furthermore, there did not appear to be any visible injuries suffered by claimant, and no evidence that claimant in fact urinated on himself or that he lost consciousness.

Accordingly, the Court therefore concludes that the force utilized by the correction officers, as testified to, was reasonably necessary under the circumstances, and was not unjustified or excessive as alleged by claimant (Passino v State of New York, 260 AD2d 915, lv denied 93 NY2d 814).

Based upon the foregoing, therefore, and after due consideration of all of the trial testimony and documentary evidence, Claim No. 103284 is hereby DISMISSED.

Any motions not heretofore ruled upon are hereby denied.

LET JUDGMENT BE ENTERED ACCORDINGLY.

December 23, 2010

Syracuse, New York

NICHOLAS V. MIDEY JR.

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. Unless otherwise indicated, all references and quotations are taken from the Court's trial notes.