Molina v. The City of Elmira, New York et al
ORDER denying 82 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. Signed by Hon. David G. Larimer on 8/4/2016. (LB)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK
DECISION AND ORDER
MATTHEW D. SAUNDERS, et al.,
This civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arose out of the arrest of plaintiff
Jose Molina ("plaintiff') during the early morning hours of September 19, 2010, by five police
officers employed by the City of Elmira Sheriffs Department who responded to a 9-1-1 call
concerning events at plaintiffs home - Matthew Saunders ("Saunders"), James Wandell
("Wandell"), Joshua Vanskiver ("Vanskiver"), Stephen Lincoln ("Lincoln") and John Perrigo
("Perrigo"). Eventually, plaintiff and his son, Jose Molina, Jr., were arrested. Plaintiffs claims
against the defendants include unlawful entry, unlawful arrest and excessive force.
On January 14, 2016, after a six-day jury trial, the jury returned a verdict of "no cause"
on all of plaintifPs claims. (Dkt. #79). Plaintiff now moves for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R.
Civ. Proc. 59(a), on the grounds that: (1) the jury's "no cause" verdict was against the weight of
the evidence; and (2) defendants inappropriately exercised a peremptory challenge to strike a
minority juror. (Dkt. #82). For the reasons that follow, plaintifrs motion is denied.
Weight of the Evidence
Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 59(a) provides that, "[t]he Court may, on motion, grant a new trial on
all or some of the issues - and to any party ... after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new
trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 59(a).
A trial court may grant such a motion to prevent a "miscarriage of justice" and grant a new trial
if, in the court's opinion, the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence. Mallis v.
Bankers Trust Co., 717 F .2d 683, 691 (2d Cir. 1983 ). In deciding whether a new trial should be
granted, the court may weigh the evidence and assess "the verdict in the overall setting of trial."
Benevino v. Saydjari, 574 F.2d 676, 684 (2d Cir. 1978). Nonetheless, "it is still improper for the
Court to grant a new trial when 'resolution of the issues depend[s] on assessment of the
credibility of the witnesses,"' Benson v. Yaeger, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122966 at *10
(W.D.N.Y. 2010), quoting United States v. Landau, 155 F.3d 93, 105 (2d Cir. 1998), and
therefore a jury's credibility findings should be only "rarely disturb[ed]." DLC Mgmt. Corp. v.
Town of Hyde Park, 163 F.3d 124, 134 (2d Cir. 1998). See also Sorlucco v. New York City
Police Dep 't, 971 F .2d 864 (2d Cir. 1992).
Plaintiff argues that the jury's verdict in favor of the defendants was against the weight of
the evidence, because: (1) there was insufficient evidence of "exigent circumstances" for a
reasonable jury to find that the defendant officers' warrantless entry onto plaintiff's private
property was justified by "probable cause plus exigent circumstances" for purposes of the Fourth
Amendment, or an "emergency" under New York law; and (2) there was insufficient evidence of
any lawful basis for the officers to remain on plaintiffs private property after his arrest.
Plaintiff does not directly challenge the jury's finding that the defendants who arrested
plaintiff had probable cause to do so.
However, whether the warrantless nature of the
defendants' entry on plaintiffs property was justified by the necessary combination of probable
cause plus exigent circumstances is an "objective [determination] that turns on the totality of
circumstances confronting law enforcement agents in the particular case."
United States v.
Gordils, 982 F.2d 64, 69 (2d Cir. 1992). Relevant considerations may include, but are not
limited to: (1) the nature of the offense with which the suspect is to be charged; (2) whether the
suspect is reasonably believed to be armed; (3) probable cause to believe that the suspect
committed the crime at issue; (4) strong reason to believe that the suspect is present on the
premises to be entered; (5) the likelihood of escape if the suspect is not apprehended; and (6) the
peacefulness of the entry. See e.g., United States v. Moreno, 701F.3d64, 73-75 (2d Cir. 2012).
Here, the evidence presented to the jury included: (1) testimony by the girlfriend of Jose
Molina, Jr., Heather Sweet ("Sweet") that Jose Molina, Jr. was intoxicated on the night of
September 19, 2010 and had made threats against her as they engaged in an argument outside of
their adjoining residences (resulting in a minor child of Sweet's calling 9-1-1 to summon law
enforcement to the home); (2) testimony by defendant officers Wandell, VanSkiver and Saunders
that after arriving at the Molina residence in response to the 9-1-1 call, they overheard Jose
Molina, Jr. yelling at Sweet that he would harm or kill her; (3) testimony by defendant officers
Wandell, Vanskiver, Saunders and others that despite warnings by them to desist, Jose Molina,
Jr. repeatedly retreated into his own residence, and then re-emerged to confront Sweet in a loud
and threatening manner, disturbing the neighborhood and attracting the attention of neighbors;
(4) testimony by defendant officer Wandell that Jose Molina, Jr.'s conduct made Wandell
concerned for Sweet's safety; (5) testimony by defendant officers Wandell, Vanskiver and
Saunders that they entered the Molina residence for the purpose of pursuing and arresting Jose
Molina, Jr., after he attempted to flee from them; (6) testimony by defendants that plaintiff
physically and verbally attempted to interfere with the arrest of his son, including yelling at the
arresting officers from inside and outside of the house, and repeatedly striking one of the
arresting officers; and (7) testimony by defendants that a few minutes later, as Jose Molina, Jr.
was taken into custody, additional officers who had just arrived on the scene (defendants Lincoln
and Perrigo) were instructed to enter the Molina residence to effect plaintiffs arrest.
In light of this testimony, there was ample evidence by which the jury could have
concluded that the warrantless entry onto plaintiffs property by each of the defendant officers Matthew Saunders, James Wandell, Joshua Vanskiver, Stephen Lincoln and John Perrigo - was
justified by emergent and/or exigent circumstances, and that the scope and duration of the
defendants' investigation incident to the arrests of plaintiff and Jose Molina, Jr., including but
not limited to the officers' entering, reentering or remaining on the property for a short time, was
reasonable. The jury was free to accept or reject the testimony of plaintiff, the arresting officers,
and other witnesses concerning the events of September 19, 2010 as it saw fit, and to draw
reasonable inferences therefrom. See Benson, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122966at*10.
In light of these factors, the Court cannot conclude that the jury's verdict was against the
weight of the evidence, or that it constituted a miscarriage of justice.
Under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), a party who believes he has been denied
equal protection through his opponent's use of peremptory challenges may challenge the striking
of a juror believed to be discriminatory. Analyzing a Batson claim requires a three step process.
First, the movant (here, plaintiff) must make out a prima facie case by showing that the totality
of the relevant facts gives rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose. Then, the burden shifts
to the proponent of the strike (here, defendants) to provide an adequate, race-neutral justification
for the strike. If a race-neutral justification is provided, then the trial court must then determine
whether the movant has proved "purposeful racial discrimination." Johnson v. California, 545
U.S. 162, 168 (2005).
The fact that an individual is a member of a minority group is not, by itself, sufficient to
suggest a Batson violation.
"Unless a discriminatory intent is inherent in the [party' s]
explanation, the reason offered is deemed race neutral." Purkett v. Elen, 514 U.S. 765, 768
(1995). Here, the plaintiff objected to the defendants' striking of a potential juror who was of
Initially, the Court is not convinced that a prima facie showing was made by plaintiff,
that the totality of the circumstances gave rise to an inference of discriminatory purpose.
However, even assuming arguendo that plaintiff did make such a showing, in response to
plaintiff's challenge, defendants offered a race-neutral reason for the peremptory challenge,
noting that the prospective juror had indicated that: (1) his son had been arrested; (2) he believed
that his son's arrest had been unlawful, and; (3) he was angry over the payment of restitution in
connection with that arrest. Plaintiff offers no evidence that the defendants' reason for the strike
was pretextual, except to point out that a Caucasian juror whose son had been arrested was not
struck. However, that juror is easily distinguishable from the one in question with respect to the
reasons given for the strike. The Caucasian prospective juror expressed no anger concerning his
son' s arrest, and testified that he believed that his son's arrest was lawful and the arresting
officers' actions justified. As such, plaintiff has failed to meet his burden to show that the
defendants exercised any of their peremptory challenges in a discriminatory manner, or that the
Court's ruling on plaintiffs objection was erroneous.
For the foregoing reasons, I find that the plaintiff was afforded a full and fair opportunity
to prosecute his claims, and that the jury's verdict was not a miscarriage of justice or against the
weight of the evidence. Plaintiffs motion for a new trial pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 59(a)
(Dkt. #82) is denied in its entirety.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
Rochester, New York
HON. DAVID G. LARIMER
United States District Judge
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?