New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims
PICKETT v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, # 2019-029-079, Claim No. 128015

Synopsis

The State was previously found 100% liable for the unconstitutional detention of claimants. After a trial on damages, the court awarded claimants $120,000 plus interest for purely emotional harm.

Case information

UID: 2019-029-079
Claimant(s): ARON PICKETT, NATALIE DEAN AND NATHANIEL PICKETT
Claimant short name: PICKETT
Footnote (claimant name) :
Defendant(s): THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Footnote (defendant name) :
Third-party claimant(s):
Third-party defendant(s):
Claim number(s): 128015
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):
Judge: STEPHEN J. MIGNANO
Claimant's attorney: ANTHONY DEFAZIO LAW, P.C.
By: Anthony M. Defazio, Esq.
Defendant's attorney: LETITIA JAMES, ATTORNEY GENERAL
By: Elizabeth Gavin, Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant's attorney:
Signature date: October 11, 2019
City: White Plains
Comments:
Official citation:
Appellate results:
See also (multicaptioned case)

Decision

After a bifurcated trial, the court (Scuccimarra, J.) issued a decision finding the State 100% liable for the unconstitutional detention of claimants, Aron Pickett, his wife Natalie Dean and their adult son Nathaniel Pickett.(1) A trial on damages was held on August 20, 2019, at which time all three claimants testified. There were no exhibits admitted at trial and the defense did not call any witnesses.

The claim arose on June 5, 2015, when claimants were stopped as they drove on Route 9 in Hyde Park, New York, then detained for approximately one hour, by State, County and local law enforcement. Judge Scuccimarra found in the decision on liability (Pickett v State of New York, UID No. 2018-030-031 [Ct Cl Scuccimarra, J., Oct. 17, 2018]) that the initial stop and removal of claimants from their car was legally justified because the officers observed some similarities to the description of a suspected bank robber and his vehicle previously transmitted. However, "the justification for the stop did not survive the initial inquiries" conducted "[w]ithin minutes," and claimants detention in handcuffs continued for at least half an hour after the officers knew they were no longer suspects.

Aron Pickett testified that his wife was driving the car. He was placed in the back seat of a Hyde Park police car where he sat handcuffed and facing forward. He was detained alone in the hot car for about one hour in total, with around thirty minutes of that time after he heard a radio transmission clearing him and his family. There was no one he could talk to. After he was let out of the car, they said his family had been "victims of a horrible incident."(2)

The experience made him feel "weak as a man," like he "couldn't defend his family." He still drives, but now when he sees state troopers he fears they could repeat the incident. He did not previously feel that way. He started having nightmares and was unable to sleep through the night. He saw a doctor who prescribed him Ambien and a muscle relaxer.

Natalie Dean testified that Aron Pickett is her husband and Nathaniel Pickett is her son. She was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a State police car. While she was in the car she heard a call on the radio saying her family were not the right people. She was upset and afraid for her son. They were yelling at him like he was not listening, telling him to get down, but he was compliant. She was not sure where they had taken him. She was held in the car for about one hour and ten minutes, with around "27 to 28 minutes" of that time after the radio call clearing them. The sheriff released her from the car, removed the handcuffs, apologized and told them it was a case of mistaken identity.

She does not talk about the incident. She "can't handle it," and tries to avoid thinking about it. When driving, she now pulls over to let police pass her as she does not like them driving behind her. Before the incident, police did not bother her, but now she gets nervous.

Nathaniel Pickett testified that Aron Pickett and Natalie Dean are his parents. He is presently 27 years old. On the day of the incident he was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of the sheriff's car. An investigator from the State police came over, said he looked familiar and was trying to keep him calm. They had met previously when Nathaniel applied to become a state trooper. He heard a radio call saying they were the wrong people, then spent approximately 30 minutes more in the car.

He has a different viewpoint now about the police. He works in sales for Toyota and has trouble dealing with them as clientele. While driving, he gets cold sweats when he sees police on the road. His sleeping is also interrupted. He wakes up at around 3:00 a.m.

Claimants and defendant both rested. Defendant's attorney did not make a closing statement but the court agreed to her submitting a written closing in letter form and set a schedule for submission of letters by both parties. The court did not receive the letters and both attorneys have communicated their intent not to submit a letter.

Claimants' undisputed testimony establishes they experienced serious emotional distress during the incident, which caused them to sustain ongoing emotional and mental injuries. Claimants do not claim they suffered physical injuries, but under the circumstances they are entitled to recover damages for purely mental and emotional harm. As Judge Scuccimarra explained in Perrington v State of New York,

"It is well established in New York that damages may be recovered for purely emotional harm, even where there is no physical injury involved, especially where such claims of harm rest upon evidence substantiating their genuineness. For acts in the nature of trespass or civil assault or false imprisonment such as these, the fact of such violation alone is compensable in damages" (UID No. 2010-030-038 [Ct Cl, Scuccimarra, J., Nov. 18, 2010]).

(see Johnson v State of New York, 37 NY2d 378, 382 [1975]; Taggart v Costabile, 131 AD3d 243, 252-253 [2d Dept 2015]; Hering v Lighthouse 2001, LLC, 21 AD3d 449, 450-451 [2d Dept 2005]).

The undisputed credible and emotional testimony provided by Mr. Pickett, Ms. Dean and their son Nathaniel Pickett, paints a compelling picture of a traumatic and terrifying experience, the legal justification for which Judge Scuccimarra concluded, in the decision on liability, ended "within minutes" of the initial stop. Ms. Dean and her husband bore no resemblance to the description of a young, black male suspect, and instead of releasing the family immediately after learning they were not suspects, the State's agents continued to detain them isolated and in handcuffs for half an hour. At no point before their release did any of the State's agents provide a reason for the initial stop, the drawn guns, the screamed commands to get down, the handcuffs, the separating them, or the hour long detention.

The court is satisfied that the trauma, fear and humiliation they experienced, and the present complaints of fear and emotional injury testified to are genuine, substantial, and proximately caused by the intentional egregious conduct of the State's agents on June 5, 2015. Moreover, not only did Ms. Dean and her husband suffer direct harm, as did their son Nathaniel, they also witnessed the conduct directed at their son. They had a contemporaneous awareness of Nathaniel being accosted verbally, handcuffed while he was kneeling on the ground, and taken away. As immediate family members, they were clearly within the zone of danger for emotional harm suffered as a result of such observation (see generally Bovsun v Sanperi, 61 NY2d 219, 230-231 [1984]).

Based upon all of the foregoing, the court awards total damages of $120,000 to claimants for the harm they suffered, plus interest from October 17, 2018, the date the decision on liability was signed, and thereafter to the date of entry of judgment pursuant to 5001 and 5002 Civil Practice Law and Rules. To the extent claimants have paid a filing fee, it may be recovered pursuant to Court of Claims Act 11-a(2).

The Chief Clerk of Court shall enter judgment accordingly.

October 11, 2019

White Plains, New York

STEPHEN J. MIGNANO

Judge of the Court of Claims


1. The claim was transferred to this court's calendar after Judge Scuccimarra retired on December 31, 2018.

2. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are to the audio recording of the trial.