Monday, September 27, 2010

San Francisco Federal Judge rules BART's mistaken arrest was lawful

Benjamin Franklin Butler drafted the
Enforcement Act of 1871.  Photo
courtesy of wikisource.
Northern California Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled Friday that the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) arrest of Omar Raamses Bennett.  This exonerates Officers Noel Flores and Keith Garcia who performed the arrest on Bennett on January 22, 2008.

According to Court documents, the plaintiff was leaving a BART station on January 22, 2008 when he believed that he had left his wallet on the train and was short of cash for the exit fare.  He went to a BART station agent and asked the agent to hold the train in order for him to get his wallet.  Officer Flores over heard the conversation, approached Mr. Bennett and asked him for identification.  Mr. Bennett, stated he had none but gave his full name and date of birth.  Officer Flores then detained Mr. Bennett for suspicion of fare evasion and contacted BART dispatch to check if Mr. Bennett had any pending warrants pursuant to a BART policy (the judge noted that the contours of that policy were not provided). 

The search showed a bail warrant in Pennsylvania for Omar Alexander Bennett AKA Omar Raamses Bennett.  Most of the information obtained from Mr. Bennett and Pennsylvania including name, race, date of birth, hair and eye color, weight and social security number matched. However the Pennsylvania warrant was for someone 5'10" tall and Mr. Bennett was 6' tall. The officers arrested Mr. Bennett, searched him and found his wallet in his pants pocket.  Mr. Bennett was held for three days before BART realized they had the wrong man and released him.

Mr. Bennett sued the officers and BART under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 for false arrest and excessive force in violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment. An arrest without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment. As does physical force unnecessary to accomplish a legitimate law enforcement objective. As this blog noted before, it is easier for the police to win summary judgment on the false arrest claim than the excessive force claim.

BART claimed that the data match was sufficient to show that Mr. Bennett was the person who Pennsylvania had a warrant for and that there was probable cause for the arrest.  Mr. Bennett states that his claims of innocence should have been given more weight.  The Court sided with BART finding that its actions were objectively reasonable.  Similarly, Mr. Bennett managed to lose his excessive force claim by failing to allege any act in which the officers used excessive force.

As Judge Marilyn Hall Patel noted, "The evidentiary record in this case leaves much to be desired." She was critical of Verleena D. Green, the plaintiff's attorney:
At the time of the initial hearing on summary judgment plaintiff had done virtually no discovery. The court continued the motion to give plaintiff an opportunity to propound discovery including the taking of depositions. No depositions were taken by plaintiff. At the request of the court defendants produced the CD-ROM that is Exhibit 1 and which assisted the court. Plaintiff did no further discovery and could add nothing to the further argument at the rescheduled summary judgment hearing.
Judge Patel granted summary judgment for BART ending the case.  The Case is Bennett v. San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit No. C 09-0515 and the opinion is below the jump.

Bennett v. BART

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