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Chalco v. Belair

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 5, 2019

RENE CHALCO, Plaintiff,
CHRISTOPHER BELAIR et al., Defendants.


          Hon. Vanessa L. Bryant United States District Judge.

         Before the Court are six motions in limine by Defendant Christopher Belair. Defendant seeks to exclude the following: (1) testimony and exhibits concerning the criminal and/or internal investigation against Defendant; (2) testimony and exhibits concerning Defendant's personnel history, including his disciplinary history; (3) any evidence pertaining to Defendant's criminal trial stemming from his interaction with Plaintiff; (4) exhibits concerning the Danbury Police Department's rules, regulations, policies and general orders; (5) any evidence pertaining to incidents which occurred after the conclusion of the motor vehicle stop; and (6) evidence of Defendant's termination, appeal and rehire by the Danbury Police Department. See Dkts. 185-90. For the reasons and to the extent stated below, Defendant's motions to exclude evidence of criminal and internal investigations, personnel and/or disciplinary history, the criminal trial, police department rules and regulations and Defendant's termination, appeal and rehire are GRANTED. See Dkts. 185-188, 190. Defendant's motion to exclude evidence of events which occurred after the motor vehicle stop is DENIED. See Dkt. 189.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The Court assumes familiarity with the lengthy history of this case and provides a limited factual and procedural background. Plaintiff brought this action against Danbury police officers following a traffic stop in Mach 2013.[1] Plaintiff alleges that during the stop Defendant berated him and punched him in the mouth and nose. Plaintiff brought claims against Defendant for excessive force in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, deliberate indifference to medical needs in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defendant moved for summary judgment and the Court granted his motion as to Plaintiff's claim for deliberate indifference to medical needs only. Plaintiff's remaining claims are excessive force in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         II. Legal Standard

         The purpose of a motion in limine is to “aid the trial process by enabling the Court to rule in advance of trial on the relevance of certain forecasted evidence, as to issues that are definitely set for trial, without lengthy argument at, or interruption of, the trial.” Palmieiri v. Defaria, 88 F.3d 136, 141 (2d. Cir. 1996). Evidence should be excluded on a motion in limine only when the evidence is clearly inadmissible on all potential grounds. Levinson v. Westport Nat'l Bank, No. 3:09-CV-1955 (VLB), 2013 WL 3280013, at *3 (D. Conn. 2013). A court's ruling regarding a motion in limine “is subject to change when the case unfolds . . . Indeed even if nothing unexpected happens at trial, the district judge is free, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, to alter a previous in limine ruling.”[2] Palmieiri, 88 F.3d at 139 (quoting Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 41-42 (1984)).

         A. Relevance

         Under Federal Rule of Evidence 402, evidence must be relevant to be admissible. Fed.R.Evid. 402. Evidence is relevant when it has “any tendency to make a fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence” provided that the fact is “of consequence in determining the action.” Fed.R.Evid. 401. Irrelevant evidence “is not admissible.” Fed.R.Evid. 402.

         B. Probative Value

         The Court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence. See Fed. R. Evid. 403. However, “[p]rejudice alone is not sufficient to warrant exclusion under Rule 403. Virtually all evidence is prejudicial to one party or another. When a defendant is being prosecuted for exactly what [the evidence] depicts, courts consistently have rejected Rule 403 challenges. To justify exclusion under Rule 403, the prejudice must be unfair, although evidence may be ‘unfairly prejudicial' when it alludes to the very fact to be decided.” 2 Weinstein's Federal Evidence § 403.04 (2018) (internal citations and quotations omitted). The Advisory Committee Note to Rule 403 “explains that ‘unfair prejudice' means an undue tendency to suggest decision on an improper basis, commonly, though not necessarily, an emotional one. Unfairness may be found in any form of evidence that may cause a jury to base its decision on something other than the established propositions in the case. Prejudice is also unfair if the evidence was designed to elicit a response from the jurors that is not justified by the evidence.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         C. Limiting Instructions

         Plaintiff proposes several of the same limiting instructions throughout his briefing. To avoid needless repetition, the Court will address all of Plaintiff's suggested limiting instructions here. As discussed in detail below, each instruction is unnecessary because the evidence is irrelevant as to the limited purpose for which Plaintiff seeks to introduce it. Federal Rule of Evidence 105 provides that, “[i]f the court admits evidence that is admissible against a party or for a purpose - but not against another party or for another purpose - the court, on timely request, must restrict the evidence to its proper scope and instruct the jury accordingly.” Fed.R.Evid. 105. As Rule 105 plainly states, limiting instructions are only necessary if the court finds that evidence is admissible for a limited purpose. 1 Weinstein's Federal Evidence § 105.02 (2018). Plaintiff's evidence is not admissible for the limited purpose he suggests, therefore a limiting instruction is unnecessary.

         Plaintiff suggests an instruction that certain evidence is admissible only to inform the jury how “Detective Lieutenant Lopes and Sergeant Soda narrowed down the individuals who may have violated the department's rules and policies.” See, e.g., Dkt. 204 at 4. Plaintiff also describes this instruction as a “roadmap to how the police narrowed down the individuals who may have violated departmental rules and policies.” Id. at 3. The Court finds that none of the proposed evidence is admissible for this limited purpose. The methods by which the police department zeroed in on Defendant do not tend to prove any of Plaintiff's remaining claims and therefore, they are irrelevant. See Fed. R. Evid. 401.

         To the extent Plaintiff is suggesting that he wants to introduce evidence that Officer Howley secretly recorded Defendant and that someone sent Officer Howley's recording to the police department, this ruling does not prohibit Plaintiff from questioning Officer Howley about his actions and motivations and questioning other witnesses with personal knowledge about the transmittal and receipt of the recording because such testimony may be relevant to show that a reasonable police officer would not have acted as Defendant did under the circumstances. See, e.g., Dkt. 200 at 2.

         Plaintiff proposes an additional instruction that evidence of the criminal and internal investigations, Defendant's prior disciplinary history and police department policies are admissible only to show the reasonableness of the force allegedly used by Defendant. As explained more fully below, this evidence is irrelevant and inadmissible. Even as to the limited purpose suggested by Plaintiff, this evidence is still inadmissible. The standards governing state law claims, internal investigations, officer discipline and police department policies are irrelevant to Plaintiff's excessive force claim which is governed by a constitutional reasonableness standard. As the Supreme Court explained in Whren v. United States, police rules and regulations “vary from place to place and from time to time” such that they cannot be a reliable measure of constitutional reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment. 517 U.S. 806, 815 (1996). The same principle applies here. See Thompson v. City of Chicago, 472 F.3d 444, 455 (7th Cir. 2006) (“[W]e are confident that, if confronted with the question of whether police manuals, guidelines or general orders are ‘reliable gauges' of the reasonableness of an officer's use of force, the Court would reach the same conclusion that it did in Whren.”). The Court finds that evidence about whether Defendant violated state law or police department policies is irrelevant to the constitutional reasonableness standard for an excessive force claim.

         Lastly, Plaintiff cites Roguz v. Walsh in support of his claim that certain evidence is relevant for the limited purpose of determining whether Defendant acted within the scope of his employment. In Roguz, plaintiff brought an indemnification claim against defendant officer's police department. No. 09-1052 TLM, 2013 WL 1498126, at *1 (D. Conn. Apr. 5, 2013). For the indemnification claim, plaintiff was specifically required to prove that defendant was acting within the scope of his employment. Id. at *8. The Court held that “[t]he fact that [defendant] left employment at the City of New Britain Police Department as a result of the incident underlying this case is relevant to whether he was acting within the scope of his employment, but not as to whether he used excessive force against plaintiff.” Id. at *13. As discussed above, limiting instructions are only necessary where the evidence sought to be introduced is admissible, but it must be confined to a specific use. Here, unlike the plaintiff in Roguz, Plaintiff did not bring a claim against Danbury for indemnification. Therefore, any evidence as to whether Defendant acted ...

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