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New Lawsuit Is Latest Example Of Residents Seeking Accountability For Wrongful Arrests In New York City

Charges in each of four arrests of a city man were subsequently dropped. Now he has become one of a long line of New York City residents who have filed wrongful arrest lawsuits against the city.

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In October 2016, Edward Guillen was arrested in New York City for allegedly selling cocaine outside a bodega. In June 2017, another arrest brought a marijuana charge, and in January 2018, Guillen was arrested twice: on a weapons possession charge as the new year was getting underway, and at the end of the month when police said they found “an illicit air pistol.”

Charges in each of Guillen’s cases were subsequently dropped. Now he has become one of a long line of New York City residents who have filed wrongful arrest lawsuits against the city. The trend—legal experts including public defenders, judges, and at least four New York district attorneys say—suggests the NYPD has a serious credibility problem.

Guillen has filed four lawsuits in response to his arrests, including one late last month relating to his Jan. 31, 2018, arrest. For his attorney, Samuel DePaola, the reason his client was never prosecuted in his cases is simple: “When [the district attorneys] got a chance to investigate the cases and realize what transpired, they realized no crime was ever committed here,” DePaola said. “The officers were either just plainly ignorant of the law or just using it in a malicious way to arrest and prosecute Mr. Guillen.”

In two of the arrests, DePaola said, Guillen’s primary “crime” appears to have been driving “an expensive vehicle” while being a young Latinx man. His Dec. 24 suit, naming the city of New York and individual police officers, claims that he was stopped and arrested on Jan. 31, 2018, “not because of any actual probable cause to believe Plaintiff had committed any crimes or violations of the law, but because of their pernicious belief that an individual like plaintiff must be doing something illegal to be driving the vehicle he was driving, a Ford Expedition.”

When he was pulled over and arrested earlier in January, Guillen was driving another SUV—his brother’s Ford Explorer.

Both January arrests occurred in New York’s 28th Precinct, which has experienced a rash of police misconduct lawsuits in recent years. Guillen’s Jan. 31, 2018, arrest alone involved three officers who have been the subject of previous civil suits. Officers Michael D’Appolonia and Yeraldy Bonifacio were co-defendants in three civil suits arising from the same incident. The suits, which have been settled, included allegations of wrongful arrest. D’Appolonia was a defendant in an additional suit, which also alleged wrongful arrest. Detective Jose Toribio was named in a 2009 wrongful arrest suit filed by a Pennsylvania state constable, a “dark-skinned Hispanic male” who was arrested for carrying his service weapon despite having a legal permit for the gun.

All of Guillen’s lawsuits, from three arrests in Bronx County and one in Manhattan, name officers who have also been defendants in other civil suits or disciplinary findings, all of which involved allegations of false arrest or filling out inaccurate police reports. Officer Gerson O. Cabrera, one of the officers involved in Guillen’s October 2016 arrest, was named in a 2013 suit, Diggs et al v. The City of New York et al, which the city settled for $55,000. That suit included allegations of false arrest. Michael Smith, a named co-defendant in Guillen’s suit over his 2016 arrest, has been named in three additional lawsuits.  

Detective Edwin Rodriguez, who arrested Guillen in June 2017, has been disciplined for filing an inaccurate police report and has been named in two lawsuits, both of which alleged false arrest. Joseph Cannizzaro, an officer involved in Giullen’s Jan. 4, 2018, arrest, has been named in two other false arrest lawsuits. Francisco Baldares, another officer from the Jan. 4 arrest, is also named in another lawsuit that includes false arrest allegations. 

There is no central database that allows the public to see just how many individuals in New York are subject to wrongful arrests every year. The information that is available, though, tells a troubling—and expensive—story. 

According to the Legal Aid Society’s CAPstat database, officers in the 28th Precinct have been the subject of at least 15 other pending or settled lawsuits for alleged misconduct since 2012, with settlements so far totalling $785,000. A Jan. 8 citywide search of the database using the keywords “false arrest” returned 320 results. The database generally only covers 2011-15 for disciplinary actions and 2015-18 for federal lawsuits, and draws from limited data sources. 

CAPstat’s figures aren’t comprehensive. Data from 2015-19 released by the New York City Law Department lists 3,306 unique cases with cash settlements or verdicts since 2015. Even that figure isn’t complete, though, because it only lists cases that were started after 2015—lawsuits that started prior to that year but were settled in 2015 aren’t included. 

Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokeswoman, criticized the accuracy of the CAPstat database and said the department has taken deliberate steps to reduce its exposure to civil lawsuits.

“The NYPD carefully analyzes civil lawsuits and evidence in them to assess the merits of cases,” McRorie said. “Not all lawsuits filed for money have legal merit. The ones that do can be valuable tools we use to improve officer performance and enhance training or policy where necessary.”

The NYPD’s reservations about CAPstat aside, the number of settlements, and the money the city has had to pay plaintiffs, would seem to support the merit of some lawsuits being filed. In July, Gothamist reported that misconduct lawsuits against the department had already cost the city $40 million during the first six months of 2019. According to an updated version of the data that Gothamist used, “Civil Actions Regarding the Police Department” released by the New York City Law Department, 288 civil suits that had dispositions between January and November 2019 included allegations of “False Arrest/Imprisonment.”

New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Services compiles “Disposed Adult Arrests Data,” which quantifies arrests that have led to acquittals, dismissals, and cases “where the District Attorney declined to bring formal charges against the arrested individual.” A Division of Criminal Justice spokesperson, however, said the law only requires police to report arrests during which fingerprints are taken. Arrests for disorderly conduct, for example, don’t require fingerprints and thus don’t end up in the database. The database also doesn’t keep track of which arrests result in lawsuits or disciplinary actions against the arresting officers. Further, the city has chosen to interpret section 50-a of New York State’s civil rights law to mean that records of disciplinary actions against police officers are confidential. 

In terms of the prevalence of false or wrongful arrests, one attorney, who has both defended people caught up in wrongful arrests and helped victims file wrongful arrest lawsuits, told The Appeal that in their experience, district attorneys declined to prosecute in 20 to 25 percent of cases in the Bronx alone because the people involved were wrongfully arrested. The attorney agreed to speak on background because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

The city’s district attorneys also seem to believe that the NYPD has a problem. In December, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance became the fourth city DA to release a list of police officers “whose credibility has been questioned by judges,” according to Gothamist.

In April, the New York Post reported that “district attorneys offices in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx have maintained internal databases [of ‘bad cops’] for several years, while the Queens DA’s Office created one last year and the Staten Island DA’s Office is developing one.”

Anthony Posada, supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit for the Legal Aid Society, said false arrests are common across the city, particularly in communities of color.

“The police are constantly going up on people of color primarily and conducting these unlawful searches, these unlawful arrests and they go into the system,” Posada said. “So it is very much something that has almost been normalized within communities of color [that] these are the actions that police officers engage in.”

But even if charges are dropped—or never brought in the first place—the effect on the person who has been arrested can be “devastating.”

“Let’s say you had to spend three, four days on Rikers Island as a result of this false arrest,” Posada said, which was particularly true before cash bail reforms took effect Jan. 1. “Let’s say you’re eventually released, but … you’ve lost your job, you’ve lost the place where you were living. If you have children, that’s going to present consequences.” 

If the case remains open for some time before being dismissed, Posada continued, “you have to now take out time to go prove you’re innocent, right? And it wears people out.” Posada added that lawsuits like Guillen’s are a key way to hold officers accountable because New York’s police department “can’t even get their own disciplinary procedures right.”

But now, Posada told The Appeal, as part of the state’s new bail reform law, a majority of people who are stopped by police for suspected misdemeanors will receive tickets instead of being detained. “To be clear, people will still be arrested,” he added. “It only means they will be held for significantly less time. This means the potential for false arrest is still there.”