Nicholas Malfitano Jan. 21, 2016, 1:37pm


PHILADELPHIA – A federal appeals court recently upheld a trial court decision that granted summary judgment to a Philadelphia police officer, against a man who felt he had been wrongly arrested and imprisoned.

Judges Theodore A. McKee, Thomas L. Ambro and Anthony J. Scirica chose to reluctantly affirm that summary judgment ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania for Officer Brian Cash, in the case of Larry Cooper. The Third Circuit’s decision was written by Ambro.

“Mr. Cooper alleges that, based on a faulty identification by a robbery victim, he spent 77 days in jail for a crime he did not commit (and, we note, for his courageous acts worthy of a Good Samaritan comparison),” Ambro said. “Although we share Mr. Cooper’s frustration with the way events unfolded, we have no choice but to agree with the District Court that Officer Cash had probable cause to arrest him.”

In April 2012, Cooper was leaving Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia after his wife underwent emergency surgery, when he saw two men committing a robbery. Cooper gave chase after the robbers, but stopped shortly thereafter. After ceasing his pursuit, Cooper approached the robbery victim and offered his cell phone to call the police. The suit says the victim, who had been robbed from behind and witnessed Cooper near the assailants mistakenly believed he had been involved in the robbery. 

When Cash arrived on the scene, the victim said Cooper had robbed him. Cooper says he tried to explain to Cash that he was not involved in the robbery, but alleges Cash appeared uninterested in hearing his side of the story. Cash also spoke with an eyewitness who saw the aftermath of the robbery, but not the robbery itself, but it remains unclear what the eyewitness told Cash.

Cash then arrested Cooper, who was not able to make bail and remained imprisoned for two and a half months. The robbery charges were later dropped. Cooper alleges Cash “acted unreasonably” during their encounter and his arrest was “constitutionally defective.”

Ambro explained Third Circuit precedent in Wilson v. Russo led them to view a victim’s identification, even without other evidence, as sufficient probable cause.

“This rule, while not absolute, is subject only to limited exceptions for cases where the officer is aware of ‘independent exculpatory evidence or substantial evidence of the witness’s own unreliability.’ In such instances, the identification might be ‘fatally undermined,” Ambro stated.

Ambro opined Cooper did not present proof Cash knew of other evidence, independent of the eyewitness account – instead, just arguing Cash was wrong not to conduct additional investigation. Ambro added Cooper did not present “substantial evidence of the unreliability of the victim’s identification.”

“The victim’s representation that he saw the perpetrators, including Cooper, immediately after the robbery is sufficient to establish probable cause,” Ambro said. As we made clear in Wilson, the exception for unreliable witnesses is reserved for fairly unusual circumstances. This is not such a case.” 

In affirming the trial court decision, Ambro concluded none of Cooper’s allegations “fatally undermined” the eyewitness identification to be used as probable cause.

The plaintiff was represented by Brian S. Chacker of Gay Chacker & Mittin, in Philadelphia.

The defendants are represented by Amanda C. Shoffel of the City of Philadelphia Law Department’s Civil Rights Unit, also in Philadelphia.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 15-1431

U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania case 2:13-cv-02057

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nickpennrecord@gmail.com

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