What A $1M Civil Rights Win Means For Police Accountability

By Andrea Keckley | September 8, 2023, 8:31 PM EDT ·

blue barricade

A federal jury awarded a New York City man more than $1 million in damages last month after agreeing that he'd been falsely arrested and that three officers had fabricated evidence to support charges of drug possession and assault. (iStock.com/william87)

After helping win a $1.1 million verdict last month in federal court for a Staten Island man who said he was falsely arrested by three New York police officers, counsel on the case said the victory showed a growing receptiveness by jurors to give serious consideration to misconduct allegations.

Following a four-day trial, jurors agreed that the officers falsely arrested Andre Adams and deprived him of his fair trial rights when he was apprehended on charges of marijuana possession and accused of assaulting one of the officers who escorted him out of a public housing complex.

For Joel Wertheimer of solo practice Wertheimer LLP, who tried the case alongside attorneys with Winston & Strawn LLP, the verdict shows that juries can be open to listening to civil rights claims against the police.

"I do think there has been a real change societally in willingness to believe in police misconduct cases and to punish bad behavior," Wertheimer, a former Winston & Strawn associate, told Law360. "And I think it's something that the civil rights bar should really take to heart."

The verdict once again put a spotlight on false arrests and evidence fabrication by New York Police Department officers.

Earlier this year, a federal jury awarded Jawaun Fraser nearly $2 million on claims that officers fabricated evidence in order to prosecute him for robbery. Fraser spent two years in prison before a state court threw out his conviction because prosecutors and the NYPD failed to disclose that the charging officers in his case had faced dozens of civil suits alleging evidence fabrication.

Meanwhile, several district attorneys in the city have moved to vacate convictions connected to discredited police officers. The efforts were ignited by a 2021 letter from a coalition of public defenders and legal aid groups that flagged 22 former NYPD officers who had themselves been convicted of crimes or otherwise accused of misconduct.

In Adams' case, he said police arrested him one morning in March 2018 in the hallway of the Staten Island housing complex for alleged possession of a marijuana cigarette, which was never recovered. He was also accused of lunging at one of the officers and pushing him down one of the building's stairwells.

Prosecutors went on to drop the assault charges after seeing a video of the incident in the stairwell, according to court documents. Additional charges of resisting arrest, obstruction and marijuana possession were eventually adjourned in contemplation of dismissal — a process through which defendants can have cases dropped if they stay out of trouble for a set period of time.

Adams went on to file suit over the incident in March 2019.

After four days of testimony last month, it took four hours of deliberation for jurors to find that Sgt. Patrick Quigley and Officers Craig Lupardo and Daniel Delpino had consciously disregarded Adams' rights and to award both compensatory and punitive damages. The $1.1 million verdict now stands as the largest in Winston & Strawn's history of pro bono work, the firm said.

Winston & Strawn joined its former associate on the case last June, and partner Angela Smedley became Wertheimer's co-counsel for the trial.

In a recent interview with Law360, Smedley said her team got to talk to more than half of the jurors after the trial.

They learned from those discussions that jurors valued how Smedley tried to convey in her opening arguments that Adams' case was not about opposing law enforcement broadly but rather was an attempt to make sure there's accountability when officers fabricate evidence and make false arrests.

"We know that they have hard jobs … but this case is about what happens in those instances where police do commit false arrests or fabricate evidence, and then how are they held accountable for that," Smedley told Law360. "In the post-trial conversations, a couple of the jurors mentioned that they liked that that was said because they didn't want to be part of a discourse that was generally anti-police."

And in the closing arguments, she said that Wertheimer worked to drive home the idea that it was up to jurors like those chosen to hear Adams' case to help provide that accountability.

"Joel's closing was really impassioned, which they also [said] really made them feel that he really believed in his client," Smedley said. "But he closed it out by saying that this was the jury's opportunity to send a message to the police that you can't do this to people. And he repeated that a couple of times, and I think it was really powerful. But that, I think, is also connected to the reason we got punitive damages."

Wertheimer worked at Winston & Strawn and Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP before launching Wertheimer LLP in 2020 with a focus on civil rights and commercial litigation, as well as policy consulting, according to its website.

He said he learned about Adams' situation from the lawyers who worked on his criminal case.

By the time Smedley joined the lawsuit last June, Wertheimer said the defense still hadn't put any money on the table to try to end the case.

The city's "settlement position on this case the entire time had been, 'No pay,'" he said.

Some of the claims in the lawsuit were dealt with in 2021 when U.S. District Judge Margo K. Brodie granted summary judgment and dismissed New York City as a defendant.

Judge Brodie, however, declined to grant summary judgment to the individual officers both on Adams' false arrest claim as well as on his claim that Lupardo and Delpino's alleged falsification of evidence had denied him his right to a fair trial.

The judge also declined to let the defense use qualified immunity, since there were factual disputes in the suit created by conflicting evidence.

According to court documents, the defense contended at trial that Quigley and Delpino apprehended Adams after Quigley saw Adams drop a marijuana cigarette. Quigley never found the cigarette he claimed that Adams dropped. Adams says this is because it never existed.

The defense, meanwhile, argued the officers had been unable to search for the cigarette because a crowd began to form. They said the crowd also blocked them from using the elevator, forcing them to take the stairs.

Adams maintained that the crowd was nothing more than people sticking their heads out the doors and that they wouldn't have prevented Quigley from picking anything up off the ground or from allowing the officers to use the elevator.

While going down the stairwell, the defense said, Adams positioned himself above and behind Delpino, his back facing the wall, before lunging at the officer and using his right shoulder to knock him down the stairs.

Adams countered that he couldn't keep up with Delpino's pace as they traveled down the stairs and that Delpino got agitated and yanked Adams, which caused him to stumble into Delpino and knock him down the steps.

The jury ultimately rejected the idea that Adams lunged at Delpino and concluded that none of the three officers reasonably believed that he had. They also rejected the defense's claims either that Adams possessed marijuana or Quigley reasonably believed he did.

Smedley said that surveillance footage of the stairwell incident showed how, after the fall, the two other officers appeared to check on Delpino and then keep walking.

"I think it was very compelling to the jury that if there had actually been an assault here, if anybody thought that a police officer had been assaulted, that would not have been the reaction from either of those other police officers," she said.

The jury also opted to side with Adams even as he testified openly about past arrests and his history of marijuana use.

"He faced very little impeachment in terms of the consistency of what he had said," Wertheimer said.

Attorneys for the officers did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on the verdict.

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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