An Amtrak police officer had probable cause to arrest an Amtrak worker at South Station in an argument turned shoving match over whether a woman with young children could board a train early, but the worker has the right to try to convince a jury the cop used excessive force once the worker was down on the ground and being cuffed, a federal judge ruled today.
US District Court Judge Richard Stearns dismissed parts of former Amtrak worker Hasan Abdul-Hasib's suit against Amtrak police officer Colin Smith and Amtrak, ruling that Abdul-Hasib could not argue he was subject to false arrest and imprisonment because he shoved Smith in the 2016 incident and that's enough to warrant an arrest for assault and battery on a police officer - even if the charge, in Boston Municipal Court, was eventually dismissed.
But Stearns rejected a request by Smith and Amtrak to throw the entire suit out:
In the context of this case, it has long been clear that there is no justification for the use of disproportionate force by police in the course of making a routine arrest. That a genuine dispute of fact exists over the amount of force used by Officer Smith to restrain Abdul-Hasib once he was pinned to the ground is enough to [warrant a trial].
At issue is what happened on May 12, 2016, when Abdul-Hasib spotted the officer walking a woman and her two young children towards a door on an Amtrak train so they could board early, even though the train's conductor had not yet cleared the train for passenger boarding. According to a summary written by Stearns:
Abdul-Hasib, an Amtrak gateman, deemed the gesture unsafe and sought to intercede. A heated exchange ensued with Abdul-Hasib insisting that he would not give Smith permission to board anyone at that time. Smith ordered Abdul-Hasib to return to his post. Abdul-Hasib responded by threatening to have Smith fired. A shoving match followed, although Smith and Abdul-Hasib disagree about who first touched the other. Abdul-Hasib admits that during the shoving match he "contacted Smith in self-defense."
When Smith again ordered Abdul-Hasib onto the train, matters escalated. Smith then decided to arrest Abdul-Hasib for disorderly conduct. He took Abdul-Hasib to the ground and got on top of him, informing him that he was under arrest. Abdul-Hasib complained loudly of pain to his hand and knee resisted being placed in handcuffs. Abdul-Hasib submitted to the arrest only after a female Amtrak officer came on the scene to assist. In response to Abdul-Hasib’s complaints, Smith called emergency personnel who took Abdul-Hasib to Massachusetts General Hospital for evaluation. The treating physician observed no serious injuries but noted Abdul-Hasib’s subjective complaints of pain. After a disciplinary hearing, Amtrak later terminated Abdul-Hasib.
Stearns wrote that Abdul-Hasib's admission that he shoved Smith, even in what he thought was self defense, rules out a lawsuit on those and constitutional grounds because of both Massachusetts and federal court decisions:
Abdul-Hasib's argument that his use of force against Officer Smith was a justifiable exercise of self-defense has no legal significance. Massachusetts has abandoned the common-law rule that permitted forcible resistance to an arrest that a defendant sincerely believed to be unlawful. See Commonwealth v. Moreira, 388 Mass. 596, 601 (1983) ("[I]n the absence of excessive or unnecessary force by an arresting officer, a person may not use force to resist an arrest by one he knows or has good reason to believe is an authorized police officer, engaged in the performance of his duties, regardless of whether the arrest was unlawful in the circumstances.").
But at the same time, Stearns rejected Smith's and Amtrak's argument that the entire suit should be dismissed under the doctrine of "qualified immunity," that public employees are protected from suits when they are carrying out their job responsibilities. Stearns noted two legal decisions in which qualified immunity was upheld in "excessive force" cases, one cited specifically by Smith's lawyers, but said those decisions involved "deadly force" and so "have little relevance to this garden variety excessive force claim."
And so, the question becomes, Stearns continued, whether the force Smith used after he had Abdul-Hasib on the ground was warranted, especially given that Abdul-Hasib, a fellow Amtrak employee, was unlikely to be a flight risk and that the crimes Smith would charge him with were misdemeanors under state law and so not "particularly severe."
While it appears true that Abdul-Hasib was actively resisting arrest, a reasonable finder of fact might conclude that his resistance was a reaction to being placed in a physically painful position, rather than an attempt to escape from the arrest.
But that, the judge concluded, is a question for a jury.