New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
SMITH v. STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2021-015-100, Claim No. 128402

Synopsis

Incarcerated individual's claim alleging the use of excessive force was dismissed following trial. Court found the use of force was both necessary and reasonable under the circumstances.

Case information

UID: 2021-015-100
Claimant(s): WADDELL SMITH
Claimant short name: SMITH
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 128402
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: FRANCIS T. COLLINS
Claimant's attorney: Waddell Smith, Pro Se
Defendant's attorney: Honorable Letitia James, Attorney General
By: Christina Calabrese, Esq., Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: November 17, 2021
City: Saratoga Springs
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

The claim herein alleges the claimant was assaulted by correction officers in Great Meadow Correctional Facility (Great Meadow) on April 23, 2016. Trial of this matter was held on September 3, 2021.

Claimant testified that on the afternoon of April 23, 2016 he was in the Great Meadow mess hall. Claimant exited the mess hall and entered a foyer to line up to go to the yard for recreation. At that time the claimant was advised by Correction Officer Lafrance that he was on yard restriction. Officer Lafrance ordered the claimant to exit the recreation line and line up to return to his dormitory. Claimant informed Officer Lafrance that despite being on yard restriction, he was authorized to attend one hour of recreation at 1:00 p.m. each day. Officer Lafrance informed the claimant that he was not permitted to attend recreation and directed him to line up to return to his dormitory. An argument ensued and, according to the claimant, Officer Lafrance struck him in the face with his baton. The force of the blow caused the claimant to fall against a "boss chair"(1) located between the mess hall entrance and a set of stairs. At that time four correction officers arrived and forced the claimant to the ground. While the claimant laid on his stomach, he was kicked in the ribs and struck with batons. Claimant's hands were pulled behind his back and restraints were applied during which the claimant alleges a correction officer broke his finger.

The defendant presented the testimony of Correction Officer Todd Martineau who was employed at Great Meadow Correctional Facility on April 23, 2016. Officer Martineau testified that on that date he was on his way to the yard at approximately 1:00 p.m. when a "level 2" call was received, indicating that a correction officer was in a physical altercation with an inmate. The officer responded to the call and observed as he came up the stairway that the claimant had a correction officer in a bear hug. Officer Martineau testified that the claimant was substantially larger than the correction officer involved and that the claimant's arms surrounded the correction officer, restricting his arm movement. In the officer's view, Correction Officer Lafrance was "at a severe disadvantage." Officer Martineau issued several direct orders to the claimant to release Officer Lafrance, which the claimant ignored. The officer then struck the claimant twice in the face in an effort to force him to release Officer Lafrance. Several additional correction officers responded to the level 2 call, claimant was taken to the ground and restraints were applied, despite claimant's resistance.

In an Inmate Misbehavior Report dated April 23, 2016 the claimant was charged with, and later pled guilty to, assault on staff, violent conduct, creating a disturbance, interference with an employee and refusing a direct order.

"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, 34 NY3d 383, 389 [2019], quoting Jeffreys v Griffin, 1 NY3d 34, 41 n 2 [2003]; see also Silipo v Wiley, 138 AD3d 1178, 1182 [3d Dept 2016]; Bastein v Sotto, 299 AD2d 432, 433 [2d Dept 2002]). There is no requirement, however, that the contact be intended to cause harm (Relf v City of Troy, 169 AD3d 1223, 1226 [3d Dept 2019]). 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." Assessment of the degree of necessary force 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 2016]; 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]).

Upon consideration of the evidence adduced at trial, the Court finds the claimant failed to establish the use of excessive force by a preponderance of the credible evidence. The papers received in evidence as Exhibit A, consisting of the Inmate Misbehavior Report, the Hearing Disposition sheet, and supporting memoranda, indicate claimant pled guilty to several rule violations arising from this incident, including violent conduct, creating a disturbance and assault on staff. Officer Martineau testified, consistent with statements made in his Use of Force Staff Memorandum, that he struck claimant in the face only after he observed claimant overpower Officer Lafrance with a bear hug-type hold. No witnesses were called nor was contrary proof offered to support claimant's version of the events. Inasmuch as the Court's determination of whether the use of force was excessive is in large measure determined by the credibility of the witnesses (see Shirvanion, 64 AD3d 1113 [deference accorded to trial court's findings of excessive force where determination was based largely on credibility]; Wester v State of New York, 247 AD2d 468 [2d Dept 1998] [great weight should be accorded trial Court's determinations where issue of excessive force rests upon resolution of issues of credibility and assessment of weight of evidence]), the Court credits Officer Martineau's testimony that the use of force was required in order to assist Officer Lafrance and concludes that the degree of force used was reasonable under the circumstances.

Based on the foregoing, the claim is dismissed.

Let judgment be entered accordingly.

November 17, 2021

Saratoga Springs, New York

FRANCIS T. COLLINS

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. All quotes are taken from the audio transcript of the trial unless otherwise noted.