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Hamlin v. City of Waterbury

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

October 25, 2017

JEROME HAMLIN, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF WATERBURY, et. al., Defendants.

          INITIAL REVIEW ORDER

          Jeffrey Alker Meyer United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Jerome Hamlin is a prisoner of the State of Connecticut. He has filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Waterbury and two of its police officers. Based on my initial review of his complaint, this action shall proceed against the officers with respect to plaintiff's excessive force claim but shall be dismissed with respect to all of plaintiff's remaining federal law claims.

         Background

         The complaint names the following defendants: the City of Waterbury, Officer McMahon, and Officer Stafford. I will accept the following facts as true solely for purposes of my initial review to decide if plaintiff has alleged facts that give rise to plausible grounds for relief.

         On June 13, 2015, plaintiff was driving his car on Wolcott Street in Waterbury, Connecticut. His fiancée, Jasmina Ortiz, was a passenger in the car. Officers McMahon and Stafford of the Waterbury Police Department began tailgating him in their police car at a high rate of speed, while training a white spotlight on plaintiff's car as they followed him. The officers then rammed plaintiff's car, causing him to lose control and to crash into a utility pole on the side of the road. As plaintiff got out of the car to help his fiancée, he was struck from behind by the officers and knocked to the ground. The officers kicked plaintiff in his mouth and face, causing him to lose consciousness.

         When plaintiff woke up in the hospital, he learned that his fiancée had not survived the crash. Plaintiff himself was seriously injured with a fractured femur, dislocated wrist, and lacerations to his arm and face, and he continues to suffer from multiple life-altering injuries. The officers prepared a false police report in an attempt to cover up key facts of the fatal crash that they had deliberately caused.

         Plaintiff alleges that defendants “violated plaintiff's rights to be free from unreasonable use of force in an arrest, cruel and unusual punishment, denial of medical care, delay of medical care, assault, [and] deliberate indifference, ” all in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Doc. #1 at 5-6. He seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

         Discussion

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A, the Court must review a prisoner's civil complaint against a governmental entity or governmental actors and “identify cognizable claims or dismiss the complaint, or any portion of the complaint, if the complaint-(1) is frivolous, malicious, or fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; or (2) seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” If the prisoner is proceeding pro se, the allegations of the complaint must be read liberally to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest. See Tracy v. Freshwater, 623 F.3d 90, 101-02 (2d Cir. 2010).[1]

         In recent years, the Supreme Court has set forth a threshold “plausibility” pleading standard for courts to evaluate the adequacy of allegations in federal court complaints. A complaint must allege enough facts-as distinct from legal conclusions-that give rise to plausible grounds for relief. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Notwithstanding the rule of liberal interpretation of a pro se complaint, a pro se complaint may not survive dismissal if its factual allegations do not meet the basic plausibility standard. See, e.g., Fowlkes v. Ironworkers Local 40, 790 F.3d 378, 387 (2d Cir. 2015).

         Excessive Force Claim

         The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of the people to be free from unreasonable searches or seizures. The Fourth Amendment is violated if the police use excessive force on a free person in the course of an arrest or other law enforcement action. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).[2] The intentional use of a police car to cause a person's car to crash may amount to the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. See Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593, 597 (1989). There are no facts alleged in the complaint to indicate that the defendant officers had any lawful or legitimate reason to ram plaintiff's car. Compare Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007) (police did not use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment when they caused a suspect's car to crash in order to end a dangerous high-speed chase that threatened the lives of innocent bystanders). Accordingly, I conclude that the complaint on its face states a valid claim for the use of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

         I note, however, that the complaint does not describe the outcome of any subsequent criminal proceedings stemming from the crash of plaintiff's car. According to the State of Connecticut Judicial Branch website, plaintiff was convicted and sentenced in the Waterbury Judicial District to 10 years of jail on two charges of running from the police and causing death, in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 14-223(b), and illegal operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 14-227a. These convictions may possibly foreclose this lawsuit for money damages to the extent that this lawsuit depends on plaintiff's ability to prove any facts that would impugn the validity of his criminal convictions. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994); McKay v. E. Hartford Police Dep't, 2017 WL 4247383, at *3 (D. Conn. 2017).

         Notwithstanding these concerns about whether plaintiff's lawsuit may ultimately proceed, it would be premature at this time for me to decide if this lawsuit is barred under the rule of Heck v. Humphrey. Defendants may raise this argument if they choose as grounds for a motion to dismiss or for summary judgment and to include any records that would allow for ...


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