Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Sykes v. Wicomico County (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Not approved for publication)

Filed March 30, 2007 --Opinion by Judge Catherine Blake

Tyrone Sykes sued the defendants, Officers Phillips and Alessandrini for violations of federal and state law arising out of a scuffle during his arrest for criminal trespass in Salisbury, Maryland. In a Maryland district court trial, Sykes was found not guilty of the criminal trespass charge, after the judge found no probable cause for his arrest. The judge noted that under the common law one could resist reasonably in an unlawful arrest. In federal court Sykes alleged violations that included assault, battery, false imprisonment, false arrest, malicious prosecution, excessive force, violation of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

Sykes claimed that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the defendants illegally searched his person after arresting him without a warrant. The court denied summary judgment on that claim because of a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the officers had probable cause for the arrest. The court rejected summary judgment for the defendants based on qualified immunity because as stated by Syke’s version of the events, an arrest for trespass, and subsequent search, by the police without express authorization or prior agreement, and where the plaintiff articulates a plausibly legitimate reason for being on the premises, which has been acknowledged by the officer, is a constitutional violation.

Finding that the notice provisions of the Maryland Tort Claims Act do not implicate individual state employees, the court held that Sykes’s possible failure to comply with the MTCA would not bar his claim.

The defendants claimed that they were entitled to statutory immunity for the state law claims but the court rejected that as a basis for summary judgment because on the facts taken in the light most favorable to Sykes there was evidence sufficient for a jury to find actual malice, which would preclude qualified immunity. Analyzing the claims of excessive force during an arrest under the Fourth Amendment’s objective reasonableness standard and again taking the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Court found a genuine dispute of material fact concerning whether defendants used excessive force.

With respect to the assault and battery claims, the court noted that police officials are not responsible in inflicting injury on a person being arrested, unless the officer acts with malice or gross negligence. Because there was a genuine dispute as to whether the police officers lacked probable cause in arresting Sykes for trespass, and taking the facts in the light most favorable to Sykes, the judge denied summary judgment on that basis because a jury could find malice in the defendants’ actions. On a similar reasoning, the court found summary judgment inappropriate as to the false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution allegations.

The Opinion and Order are available in PDF.

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