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Pelt v. Palma

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 25, 2018

JAMES VAN PELT, Plaintiff,
v.
DONATO PALMA and LUKE RASILE Defendants.

          RULING ON THE DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS, OR, IN THE ALTERNATIVE, FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Michael P. Shea, U.S.D.J.

         Plaintiff James Van Pelt filed this action against Defendants East Haven Police Officers Donato Palma and Luke Rasile (collectively, “Defendants”) after Defendants allegedly threw him to the ground and beat him while attempting to take him into custody. Defendants move to dismiss Van Pelt's Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, and seek to convert their motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that video recordings submitted as exhibits demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact in this case. (ECF No. 16.)

         For the reasons discussed below, I convert Defendants' motion to a motion for summary judgment and DENY the motion without prejudice.

         I. Factual Background

         Van Pelt alleges that on March 5, 2017, at approximately 10:30 pm, at the Quality Inn in East Haven, Connecticut, Defendants threw him to the ground and beat him in the course of taking him into custody. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 7.) Defendants allegedly caused Van Pelt to suffer a concussion, cervical sprain, a cracked rib, a broken tooth, and bruises and contusions. (Id. ¶ 7.) Van Pelt alleges that some of the severe physical and emotional injuries he suffered as a result of Defendants' actions may be permanent. (Id. ¶ 7.) Van Pelt also states that he has been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome as a result of the incident. (ECF No. 17-1 ¶ 5.) Van Pelt filed this lawsuit on May 23, 2017, alleging that Defendants inflicted unreasonable force upon him in violation of the Fourth Amendment, bringing a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Id.)

         Defendants move to dismiss the complaint, but seek to convert their motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment by submitting video recordings with audio as exhibits attached to their motion. (ECF No. 16.)[1] Below is a brief summary of the interaction depicted in the videos.

         The video footage depicts an interaction between Van Pelt and multiple officers in the lobby of the Quality Inn. It begins by depicting Van Pelt seated in a chair in the lobby, in a relaxed position, with one leg draped over the other and his hands folded on his lap, and with three officers standing approximately five to ten feet away from him. The officers explain to Van Pelt that he is not in trouble or under arrest, but that he appeared to have medical problems and looked distressed. The officers ask him questions, including where he is coming from, where is he going, and how he got to the hotel. The officers ask whether he would like to go to the hospital, a shelter, or somewhere else. Van Pelt's pants have a large purple stain on them, and one officer comments that he can see Van Pelt has wine on his pants. One of the officers tells Van Pelt, “you gave me your ID card and started crying.”

         At one point, Van Pelt stands up from the chair and tells the officers not to put their hands on him. In the portion of the interaction depicted by the video footage, the officers had not yet touched him. Van Pelt asks to leave the premises. Officer Palma tells him that he appears intoxicated, and that he is not under arrest, but that the officers did not want him leaving the hotel. Another officer explains that they are concerned for his medical condition. Paramedics arrive at the scene during this interaction, and Officer Palma asks whether Van Pelt would let the paramedics check his vital signs. After Van Pelt asks to leave, the officers tell him he is not free to leave. Van Pelt says that he has the right to leave, advances towards the officers, and tells the officers, “put your hands on me.” Using open hands, the officers put him into the chair and hold him in the chair, while Van Pelt begins to shout, “you are assaulting me, ” and that he wants his freedom. The officers tell him to relax while he continues to shout that he is being assaulted.

         After Van Pelt rises up out of the chair and towards the officers, the officers handcuff Van Pelt, placing him face-down on the carpeted lobby floor. The officers sit him with his back propped up against the chair and step away from him. One of the officers tells the paramedics that Van Pelt was complaining of chest pains and that he is intoxicated. One paramedic approaches Van Pelt and begins questioning him, explaining that he is not a cop. Van Pelt says he wants to talk to his lawyer. Palma explains to one of the paramedics that the officers did not feel comfortable letting him leave the hotel. The officers again tell Van Pelt that he is not under arrest, but that he is in handcuffs in order to protect the safety of others, because he became agitated and combative. Van Pelt tells them to arrest him or release him. Van Pelt says that if they take off the handcuffs, he will shut his mouth and walk away.

         One of the officers explains that they came to the hotel to respond to another call, but saw Van Pelt grabbing his chest; the officer tells a paramedic that Van Pelt had said he had asthma and a heart condition. The paramedic asks Van Pelt to come to the ambulance, and tells him that he is not under arrest. The paramedic says that Van Pelt will have privacy in the ambulance. Van Pelt then begins to stand up on his own, and the officers assist him in standing. One of the officers begins to remove Van Pelt's handcuffs, but Van Pelt sits back down before the handcuffs are removed, and lies down on the floor after hearing that he will be put on a stretcher. The officers pull him up from the floor, telling him that he will hurt himself if he continues to put pressure on his wrists while handcuffed. Van Pelt shouts in what appears to be pain. The paramedic explains that the officers will put the handcuffs on Van Pelt's wrists in front of his body so that it will be easier for him and for the paramedics to examine him.

         Palma looks at Van Pelt's identification card and makes a note on a notepad. Van Pelt says he does not want to go. An officer tells him he is creating a scene in a place that is trying to do business. The officer says Van Pelt will be just fine if he stands up. The officers lift him up and place him on a stretcher, lying on his side. They hold him down on the stretcher as he starts shouting repeatedly, “someone help me.” The officers secure him to the stretcher with straps. The paramedics tell him to relax and take deep breaths. Van Pelt says he is “sorry, ” and asks if there is “any possible way to reconcile this.” The paramedics say they will talk in the ambulance. Van Pelt is lifted into the ambulance.

         The six body cameras show the same interaction from various angles. One body camera from Officer Dylan Northrop begins with Northrop driving to the hotel and arriving at the scene when the other officers are already interacting with Van Pelt in the lobby. Northrop says, “I see they got him on the ground now.”

         Another body camera depicts a man in the hotel lobby telling one of the officers that he knows Van Pelt. The video ends in the middle of the officer's conversation with the man about how he knows Van Pelt. (See generally, ECF No. 16-1 to 16-6.)

         In response to Defendants' motion, Van Pelt submitted an affidavit stating that he had watched all of the videos Defendants submitted. (ECF No. 17-1 ¶ 2.) Van Pelt states in the affidavit that the “videos begin well after the most important events in this case, ” and that “[w]hen the videos begin, several officers and one or more EMTs already ha[d] assembled in the hotel lobby, surrounding [him].” (Id. ¶ 3.) Van Pelt states that the videos “do not show the officers attacking [him] when [he] exited the hotel and in the parking area, rendering [him] temporarily unconscious, and bringing [him] back into the hotel.” (Id. ¶ 3.) Van Pelt also states that “[w]hen the videos begin, one of the officers already has [Van Pelt's] identification in his hand, ” and that “[t]he officer obtained this after the initial assault . . . by reaching into [Van Pelt's] pocket while [he] was incapacitated . . . .” (Id. ¶ 4.) Van Pelt states that those events “took place outside of the hotel, ” while Van Pelt “was ...


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