A judge today dismissed a federal civil-rights charges by a Black attorney against the MBTA and Transit Police officers who arrested him on the word of a woman who turned out to be lying because "qualified immunity" means they are protected in a case where they made a mistake - even one that cost him his job and sent him to the hospital with a pinched nerve from the handcuffs.
But US District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor said that Timothy Fraser might still have a case under state law and so sent his claims of assault and battery, discrimination under state law, abuse of process, malicious prosecution, negligent supervision and training, filing a false police report and defamation to Suffolk Superior Court for adjudication there.
Fraser had initially sued the MBTA and four officers in Suffolk court, but the MBTA and the officers successfully had the case moved to federal court because of the civil-rights issues.
At issue is the way Fraser was arrested and held for several hours following an incident at the Haymarket bus station around 6 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2017. Fraser was on his way home to Chelsea from his job with a Seaport firm when the woman bumped into him as he was boarding a 111 bus, then began berating him. He told the driver he'd get off the bus to let the driver start his route and the driver agreed to let him board at the next stop, a short walk away.
But back at the station, the woman grew more and more irate. Police arrived and she told them that he had very deliberately ground his genitals into her and smiled at her. They caught up with and stopped the bus, ordered him off, took him back to Haymarket where the woman identified him. They then arrested him on sexual-assault charges, handcuffed him and brought him to TPD headquarters for booking.
The next morning, according to the court's summary, Transit Police detectives asked the Suffolk County District Attorney's office to drop the case before it even came up on the court docket because after reviewing surveillance video, they concluded the woman was lying. At first, the assistant DAs on duty in court refused, telling Fraser he could plead not guilty and bring up the video at his next hearing, but then they got word from the DA's office on Bulfinch Place to strike the case immediately, which they did.
In 2020, Fraser sued for what he said were a variety of civil-rights violations. In his suit he also alleged that officers changed their story on what had happened after they searched him and found his bar membership card.
In his ruling, Saylor said he sympathized with Fraser, but that federal qualified immunity lets police officers off the hook if they make certain types of mistakes, which he said happened here. He wrote:
There is no question that Fraser suffered an unpleasant, if not traumatizing, experience. He was falsely accused of sexual assault, arrested, and spent several hours in jail. He was cleared of suspicion within a day, once officers reviewed video footage of the area.
After an analysis of qualified immunity, he wrote:
The qualified-immunity doctrine does not demand perfection; it permits a degree of latitude to make mistakes or misjudgments. ...
It is true that the officers did not attempt to interview any potential witnesses, and the video was not retrieved until later that night. It may well have been prudent or good practice to do so. But the officers were not legally obligated at that stage to pursue every investigative avenue. ... Moreover, the complaint does not allege, and there is no reason to believe, that the video footage was immediately accessible to them, in their patrol cars or otherwise, at the moment the arrest decision was made.
The judge then took a side trip into the issue of the societal context of the arrest in 2017:
It is also noteworthy that this incident was perhaps more fraught with complexity than a typical arrest. Arguably, the officers should have been more skeptical of the report of an alleged victim of sexual assault, and demanded additional proof. But law enforcement has been under substantial criticism—often justified—for not sufficiently crediting the complaints of such victims. As a result of giving her testimony credence, they made an arrest. Unfortunately, they arrested a man who was shown relatively quickly to be innocent. And law enforcement has also been under substantial criticism—again, often justified—for unduly aggressive enforcement actions against minority populations. That does not, of course, mean that these officers made the correct decision—obviously, they did not—but it helps to underscore the difficult nature of the decisions such officers are routinely required to make.
But he concluded:
In any event, it is not necessary to find that the officers got it right. One of the purposes of qualified immunity is to provide a reasonable degree of protection for officers to make certain kinds of mistakes. The question, therefore, is not whether they might have made a better choice. Rather, it is whether their actions were not even "arguabl[y]" supported by probable cause. Under that standard, they are clearly protected by qualified immunity.
And that meant he had no choice but to dismiss Fraser's federal civil-rights charges of false arrest and false imprisonment, as well as any federal charges related to Fraser's other claims.
However, he said that several of Fraser's charges might also be applicable under state law, such as filing a false police report and defamation - the harm done to Fraser by that report - and sent the case back to Suffolk Superior Court to let Fraser continue his case there.