July 31, 2014

Desk Appearance Ticket Can Trigger Mal Pros Claim

Whether the issuance of a desk appearance ticket ("DAT") triggers a malicious prosecution claim is a legal question that has caused more than it's share of confusion and legal wrangling. As of today, however, the answer is definitively Yes. At least if you're in federal court in New York.

In Stampf v. Trigg, the plaintiff, was arrested and charged with "jiggling" the defendant's breast. Both women worked together at the time for the Long Island Railroad and Trigg complained about the supposed conduct to officers at the MTA. As a result, Stampf was arrested and cuffed in front of her colleagues, and taken away. She remained in custody for about four hours before she was issued a DAT.

Quick definition: a DAT is a document drafted by a police officer that directs the recipient to appear in criminal court on a particular date and time to answer one or more specified criminal charges.

Prior to Stampf's appearance, the prosecutor reviewed the allegations, spoke with witnesses (including Trigg), and decided not to proceed with the charges. Ultimately, Stampf prevailed at trial, winning an award of $480,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.

One of Stampf's claims was for malicious prosecution, which requires that a plaintiff prove that (a) process was initiated (b) by the defendant (c) with malice, and (d) was terminated in plaintiff's favor. For a more detailed discussion of the elements of malicious prosecution claims, check here.

On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court's ruling that the issuance of the DAT constitutes the initiation of criminal process. This is important because, as the Court points out, New York State law was somewhat confused and contradictory on this point. By virtue of this holding, it is now clear that once the DAT issues, process has been initiated, if the mal pros claim is being pursued in federal court.

The Court also agreed that Trigg's complaints to the officers was sufficient to find that she had "initiated" the process, even though she did not personally issue the DAT or participate in the actual decision making. The logic of this is inescapable. Police defendants often argue that decisions about whether to charge someone are made by prosecutors, absolving the police of responsibility. But it is beyond dispute that, in most cases, the prosecutor's decision is based entirely on statements made to him/her by witnesses, such as the arrresting officer. The Court's ruling that this conduct -- i.e., making false accusations to a prosecutor upon which the prosecutor, or police officer issuing the DAT, relies as truthful -- is more than adequate to satisfy the initiation prong of this cause of action is the only logical conclusion available.

The Court also slashed Stampf's award. That's another matter altogether. But for our purposes, the most important point is that the issue of whether a DAT initiates a criminal proceeding has been definitely answered.

The decision is here, for anyone looking for more detail:

STAMPF v TRIGG - opinion by ml07751


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