New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
COLLIER v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2020-015-016, Claim No. 127123

Synopsis

Following trial of pro se inmate claim alleging the use of excessive force by correction officers, the claim was dismissed as claimant presented no proof other than his own testimony that the use of force was unnecessary or excessive. Court credited the testimony of a correction officer that claimant secreted contraband in his mouth and failed to comply with a direct order thereby justifying the degree of force used.

Case information

UID: 2020-015-016
Claimant(s): RAHCIEF COLLIER, 12A5600
Claimant short name: COLLIER
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 127123
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Claimant's attorney: Rahcief Collier, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney: Honorable Letitia James, Attorney General
By: Christina Calabrese, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: January 17, 2020
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

Claimant, a pro se inmate, seeks damages for the use of excessive force by correction officers. Trial of this matter was held by remote video conference on November 22, 2019.

Claimant testified that on the morning of November 8, 2015 he was in the main recreation yard of Great Meadow Correctional Facility when he was searched by Correction Officers Laura Jones and Douglas Jones. No contraband was found and the officers escorted him to the sergeant's stand where the officers were instructed to take his identification card and allow him to go back to the yard. At some point thereafter, the same correction officers took claimant to the mess hall foyer for an additional search. Claimant was directed to place his hands on the wall at which time Officer Laura Jones grabbed him from behind and Officer Douglas Jones began striking him with his "wooden baton."(1) Claimant testified that Officer Douglas Jones struck him three times on the top of his head as Officer Laura Jones was choking him from behind. He also testified that Officer Laura Jones pushed him to the ground where he curled up into a fetal position as others kicked him repeatedly from every direction. According to the claimant, although the beating in the foyer was videotaped the defendant did not retain a copy of the video(2) (see Exhibit 4).

Claimant testified that when he "woke up" he was escorted to the prison infirmary. He admitted that he possessed synthetic marijuana, but stated it was found only after he was assaulted by the correction officers. According to the claimant there was no justification for the assault.

Defendant produced Correction Officer Douglas Jones as a witness. Officer Jones testified that he has been employed by the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for approximately 20 years and has worked at Great Meadow Correctional Facility since September 2003. Officer Jones was instructed by a sergeant to search a group of inmates in the recreation yard because someone in the tower saw something suspicious. Officer Jones brought the claimant to the sergeant's stand and then directed claimant to put his hands behind his back because he was going to be searched. According to Officer Jones, claimant was shaking and acting nervous. Officer Jones testified that once in the mess hall foyer he directed claimant to place his hands high and flat on the wall for a pat frisk. He also asked the claimant where he "locked." Claimant was unable to clearly respond, which led Officer Jones to believe he was hiding something in his mouth. When Officer Jones asked the claimant if he had anything in his mouth, claimant took his hand off the wall and began to move it toward his mouth. Fearful that claimant had a weapon, Officer Jones pushed him to the floor in an attempt to gain his compliance. As claimant was flailing and resisting restraints, a "bundle" fell to the floor which was later determined to contain a cutting-type instrument and illicit drugs. After Officer Jones succeeded in placing claimant in hand restraints, he held him down on the floor until leg restraints could be applied. During this time, claimant ignored his commands to stop resisting. According to Officer Jones, he did not strike or hit the claimant and he used only that degree of force which was necessary to restrain him.

On cross-examination Officer Jones testified that he did not recall searching the claimant in the recreation yard. Even if a pat frisk in the yard was performed, however, Officer Jones testified that claimant would have been brought to the mess hall foyer where a hand-held scanner could be used to detect metal. Officer Jones stated that when claimant reached into his mouth to remove the contraband he felt justified in the use of force. He denied that he used his baton and stated that the only force used was in the form of body holds.

"Battery is the unjustified touching of another person, without that person's consent, with the intent to cause a bodily contact that a reasonable person would find offensive; '[a]ssault involves putting a person in fear of a battery' " (Rivera v State of New York, ___NY3d ___ Slip Op 08521 *3 [2019], quoting Jeffreys v Griffin, 1 NY3d 34, 41 n 2 [2003]; see also Bastein v Sotto, 299 AD2d 432, 433 [2d Dept 2002]; Silipo v Wiley, 138 AD3d 1178, 1182 [3d Dept 2016]). In the prison environment, the use of force is specifically permitted "in self defense, or to suppress a revolt or insurrection [and] . . . to maintain order, to enforce observation of discipline, to secure the persons of the offenders and to prevent any such attempt or escape" (Correction Law 137 [5]). As set forth in 7 NYCRR 251-1.2 (b), "[w]here it is necessary to use physical force, only such degree of force as is reasonably required shall be used." Assessing the degree of force necessary requires consideration of the particular circumstances confronting officers at the time the force was applied (Diaz v State of New York, 144 AD3d 1220, 1222 [3d Dept 2019]; Shirvanion v State of New York, 64 AD3d 1113 [3d Dept 2009]; Bush v State of New York, 57 AD3d 1066 [3d Dept 2008]; Koeiman v City of New York, 36 AD3d 451 [1st Dept 2007], lv denied 8 NY3d 814 [2007]; Lewis v State of New York, 223 AD2d 800 [3d Dept 1996]; Bazil v State of New York, 63 Misc 3d 1216 [A], *3 [Ct Cl, 2019]). The State is not immune from liability for an assault and battery when an officer uses more force than is necessary to perform his or her duty (Arteaga v State of New York, 72 NY2d 212, 220-221 [1988]; Jones v State of New York, 33 NY2d 275 [1973], rearg dismissed 55 NY2d 878 [1982]; Barnes v State of New York, 89 AD3d 1382 [4th Dept 2011], lv denied 92 AD3d 1267 [4th Dept 2012], lv dismissed 19 NY3d 949 [2012]).

Officer Jones credibly testified that only body holds were used to restrain the claimant. While claimant testified otherwise, he produced no proof, other than his own testimony, to demonstrate that the use of force was excessive. Although claimant was taken to the prison infirmary he produced no medical records, nor did he produce photographs or videotapes of either the incident or his injuries to support his claim. Moreover, Officer Jones made clear that force was used only after claimant removed his hand from the wall and attempted to reach into his mouth to remove what later proved to be a make-shift weapon and drugs. At that point, the Court finds the use of force was reasonably necessary to secure the safety of both the prison staff and the inmates in their charge. Accordingly, the Court finds claimant failed to prove, by a preponderance of the credible evidence, that more force was used than was necessary under the circumstances.

Based on the foregoing, the claim is dismissed.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

January 17, 2020

Saratoga Springs, New York

FRANCIS T. COLLINS

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. Quotes are taken from the audio recording of the trial testimony unless otherwise indicated.

2. There is no indication in the trial record of when the video was lost or destroyed or the circumstances of its loss or destruction.