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Uzoukwu v. The City of New York

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

November 5, 2015

AFAM UZOUKWU, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
THE CITY OF NEW YORK, MICHELE KRAWIECKI, CARL MILUSO, Defendants-Appellees. [1]

Argued February 19, 2015.

Afam Uzoukwu, proceeding pro se, appeals from the August 28, 2013 judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Abrams, J.), dismissing his claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest and excessive force, after a jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants. Halfway through its deliberations, the jury sent a note asking the district court whether " refusal to acknowledge/respond to police questions [is] considered obstruction of governmental administration." App'x at 1094. In response, the district court answered that " [r]efusal to answer police questions alone, without more, would not constitute obstruction of governmental administration," but that such a determination would " depend[] on the totality of the circumstances as you find them." App'x at 1094-95. However, New York law unambiguously holds that one cannot obstruct governmental administration merely by refusing to answer police questions or to provide identification, both because such conduct is constitutionally protected, and because obstruction of governmental administration requires as an element a physical or independently unlawful act. Given that this prejudicial error was indisputably preserved, we vacate the verdict and remand for a new trial.

Page 410

AFAM UZOUKWU, Plaintiff-Appellant, Pro se, Long Island City, NY.

PAMELA SEIDER DOLGOW, of counsel (Ronald E. Sternberg, of counsel, on the brief), for Zachary W. Carter, Corporation Counsel for the City of New York, New York, NY, for Appellees.

Before: WINTER, POOLER, and SACK, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Page 411

POOLER, Circuit Judge :

Afam Uzoukwu, proceeding pro se, appeals from the August 28, 2013 judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Abrams, J. ), dismissing his claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for false arrest and excessive force, after a jury returned a verdict in favor of defendants. Halfway through deliberations, the jury sent a note asking whether " refusal to acknowledge/respond to police questions [is] considered obstruction of governmental administration." App'x at 1094. In response, the district court equivocally answered that " [r]efusal to answer police questions alone, without more, would not constitute obstruction of governmental administration," but that such a determination would " depend[] on the totality of the circumstances as you find them." App'x at 1094-95. However, New York law unambiguously holds that one cannot obstruct governmental administration merely by refusing to answer police questions or to provide identification, both because such conduct is constitutionally protected, and because obstruction of governmental administration requires as an element a physical or independently unlawful act. Given that this prejudicial error was indisputably preserved, we vacate the verdict and remand for a new trial.

BACKGROUND

According to defendants, the underlying incident began when the two named officers approached Uzoukwu at approximately 5 p.m. on May 15, 2008, while he was sitting on a park bench eating Jell--O, " [H]e did not have anything that" indicated he had " children in the park, such as a stroller." App'x at 783. The posted park rules prohibited adults who were not accompanying children from being in the playground near where the bench was located. The officers testified that they told plaintiff he could not be there without children, asked him several times whether he had any children with him, and repeatedly requested his identification, but plaintiff " continued looking down, eating his jello. He did not respond." App'x at 785. Officer Krawiecki testified that " to get his attention, I took his jello and I threw it out." App'x at 785. According to the officers, plaintiff at that point began screaming and cursing, whereupon he was arrested. [A 785] Uzoukwu was charged with (i) disorderly conduct and (ii) obstruction of governmental administration.

Uzoukwu claimed that he was at the park with his two children, ages 3 and 5, when the police approached him, demanded identification, and accused him of being a pedophile. He asserted that he only began yelling after the police officers hit him. In addition, plaintiff alleged that he was told by Sergeant Papgiannis that officers can " hit you, punch you, assault[] you, because they need to subdue you before they arrest you."

On August 21, 2009, plaintiff's criminal case was dismissed. On June 25, 2010, Uzoukwu, who was then represented by counsel, filed a complaint asserting " deprivation of rights under the United States Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983" against the named officers and " liability of the City of New York for Constitutional violations." On October 19, 2010, plaintiff filed

Page 412

an amended complaint claiming, inter alia, false arrest, excessive force, deprivation of liberty, physical injury and emotional distress. While the complaint asserted that the two officers " struck plaintiff" when plaintiff " had not done anything [that] would justify an arrest," the complaint did not assert that he was bringing claims for battery or assault.

On March 29, 2013, the parties filed a joint pretrial order in which plaintiff asserted that the " claims to be tried are (a) false arrest, (b) false imprisonment, (c) excessive force, (d) assault, (e) battery, (f) mental and emotional distress, and (g) malicious prosecution. Defendants then moved for partial summary judgment requesting that the district court dismiss with prejudice (1) plaintiff's claims against the City of New York for failure to present evidence of a municipal policy, and (2) the state law claims not previously asserted in the amended complaint. The district court issued a bench ruling granting defendants' motion.

Uzoukwu proceeded to trial on the Section 1983 claims against the officers for false arrest and excessive force. As a defense to his claim of false arrest, the officers argued that they had probable cause to believe plaintiff had committed the crimes of (i) obstruction of governmental administration and (ii) disorderly conduct. At the close of trial, the jury was instructed that the officers could not be held liable for false arrest if they had probable cause to believe plaintiff had committed the crime of either (i) obstruction of governmental administration or (ii) disorderly conduct.

An hour after the jury retired to deliberate, it sent a note requesting the parties' stipulations and the arrest records, and asking the following questions:

1) Is refusal to acknowledge/respond to police questions considered obstruction of ...

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