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NY Troopers Win Objectively Reasonable Jury Instruction Appeal

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment in favor of two New York State Troopers this week, finding that the district court did not err in instructing the jury to consider whether the Troopers’ actions were objectively reasonable.

John Terranova, Devin Baldwin, and Lamar Oliver (the Bikers) sued New York State Troopers Raphael Torres and Aaron Riley (the Troopers), claiming that the Troopers violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable seizure through the use of excessive force.

In the incident that prompted the lawsuit, Riley received reports that motorcyclists -- presumably Nicholas Terranova, Kyle Figueroa, Baldwin, and Oliver -- were speeding and driving erratically; he enlisted Torres to help him stop the motorcyclists if they returned. After the Bikers passed Riley, Torres slowed traffic to stop them.

When Baldwin was approximately 15-20 feet from Figueroa, a BMW that had been stopped in the center lane abruptly moved into the left lane, and Baldwin collided with that vehicle. Nicholas Terranova drove into the median to avoid the collision, and came to stop on the grass. Oliver, who was behind Terranova, also drove into the median and jumped off his motorcycle. Oliver's unmanned motorcycle struck Terranova in the chest, and Terranova died from the injuries.

The Bikers filed a civil rights action seeking damages for Fourth Amendment violations, claiming that they were seized without justification and that the Troopers used excessive force.

The Bikers wanted the jury instructions in the case to include a "deadly force" instruction. While the district court initially considered the idea, it ultimately instructed jurors that they were to decide whether the force used was objectively reasonable, and specified the various factors that might affect that determination. The jury ruled for the Troopers, and the Bikers appealed.

Monday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that, absent evidence that the use of force was highly likely to have deadly effects, a jury instruction regarding justifications for the use of deadly force is inappropriate, and the usual, "objectively reasonable" instruction regarding the use of excessive force is adequate.

If you're pressing a court for a deadly force jury instruction rather than an objectively reasonable instruction, brush up on the Supreme Court's Garner v. Tennessee decision. If the use of force in your case was not "highly likely" to have deadly effects, you'll probably be stuck with the objectively reasonable standard.

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