Second Circuit Revives False Arrest Case Following Improper Jury Instruction on “Obstruction of Governmental Administration”

In Uzoukwu v. City of New York, No. 13-3483-CV, 2015 WL 6742739 (2d Cir. Nov. 5, 2015), a false arrest/excessive force case, the Second Circuit vacated a judgment entered following a jury verdict for defendants.

The facts, briefly: Plaintiff was sitting on a park bench near a playground. Park rules prohibited adults unaccompanied by children from being in the playground near where the bench was located. Police officers approached plaintiff and asked him if he had any children with him and repeatedly requested his identification; plaintiff looked down and did not respond. Eventually the officers arrested plaintiff for disorderly conduct and obstruction of governmental administration.

Plaintiff asserted claims against the officers under 42 USC 1983 for false arrest and excessive force. The officers’ defense to the claim of false arrest was that they had probable cause to believe plaintiff had committed the crimes of obstruction of governmental administration and disorderly conduct.

Ultimately, the court held that the district court’s incorrect jury instruction mandated reversal. From the decision:

Halfway through deliberations, the jury sent a note asking whether “refusal to acknowledge/respond to police questions [is] considered obstruction of governmental administration.” 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.” 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. (Emphasis added.)

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