Suzanne LaFont, right (the defendant) and her husband Karl Peltomaa. They live at 30 West 83rd St. in Manhattan. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
Unnerved by a chaotic scene that involved a bolting dog, a sick husband and an aggressive police officer who ignored her pleas, it was “hardly surprising” that Suzanne LaFont tried to physically stop the officer from handcuffing her husband, Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Steven Statsinger (See Profile) said.
Citing facts he called “so extreme and unusual that this case can truly be deemed sui generis,” Statsinger dismissed charges Wednesday of second-degree harassment and second-degree obstruction of governmental administration against LaFont in the furtherance of justice.
For 30 to 60 seconds on April 11, 2013, the judge noted, LaFont tried to pull on the arm and shoulder of Officer Anthony Giambra to stop him from restraining her ill husband, Karl Peltomaa, outside their apartment on West 83rd Street.
When the officer warned that he would arrest the 59-year-old college professor if she did not stop, she told him, “Go ahead.”
“She intervened in what she perceived to be an unnecessarily forceful effort by a police officer to subdue her husband, who had open heart surgery only days before, and had just been released from the hospital,” Statsinger wrote in People v. LaFont, 2013NY029571. “It was the defendant’s own call to 911 that brought the police to the scene, as she believed that her husband was suffering a post-surgical complication that required medical intervention, and, although she placed her hands on the police officer, she did not hurt him in any way.”
Statsinger said judges should only sparingly use their powers to grant a so-called Clayton motion, a dismissal of an information in the furtherance of justice under Criminal Procedure Law §170.40 and People v. Clayton, 41 AD2d 204 (2d Dept. 1973).
But he said that LaFont has satisfied her burden of establishing that a dismissal was warranted.
According to the ruling and LaFont’s papers, her husband had only been home from Roosevelt Hospital for one day after surgery for an aortic aneurysm when he began to feel very anxious on April 11, 2013. In two calls to 911, LaFont said her husband had just been in the hospital, was on a “lot of medication” and that he was “freaking out.”
LaFont also explained that Peltomaa did not have a “psych history,” just a “medical history.”
When Giambra and other first responders arrived a short time later, LaFont’s dog dashed out the door. After returning the dog to the apartment, LaFont said she found Giambra attempting to subdue her much smaller husband by pressing his chest against a hallway wall.
She said that despite her trying to tell the officer that Peltomaa had just had open-heart surgery, he threw her husband face down onto the floor. According to statements by the couple, Peltomaa was hospitalized for two days following the incident with a cut to his chin and a dislocated thumb.
The city’s opposition papers to LaFont’s motion to dismiss referred to LaFont’s “attack” on Giambra, which the city said “escalated a dangerous situation, increasing the risk to herself, her husband, the first responders, and the police officers on the scene.” In a sworn complaint, Giambra said Peltomaa appeared to be an “emotionally disturbed person” who “indicated that he was willing to be placed in handcuffs for his protection” but grew unruly.
The city said it “would not be a miscarriage of justice” to allow LaFont’s prosecution to proceed. There are 10 factors for courts to weigh when considering a Clayton motion under CPL §170.40, including the seriousness of the offense, the extent of harm caused by the defendant, the character of the defendant and any misconduct by police or prosecutors.
In reviewing the case, Statsinger said several factors weighed in LaFont’s favor.
For one thing, he said, there were “extremely unusual and sympathetic background facts” leading to the events of April 11, 2013. With her husband recovering from heart problems which had killed his father and sister, and within a week of open-heart surgery, LaFont believed Peltomaa may have been in the throes of another heart episode when she called 911 and as Giambra was trying to handcuff him.
“While the Court makes no finding as to whether Officer Giambra used excessive or inappropriate force against Peltomaa, it is abundantly clear that defendant actually believed that this was true, particularly given the vast difference in the two men’s size,” Statsinger wrote. “It is equally clear that defendant’s belief, under all the circumstances, was reasonable.”
The judge also cited LaFont’s “exemplary” personal history, with no past criminal record and an “impeccable personal and professional pedigree.” The Yale-educated LaFont is an anthropology professor at the City University of New York. Peltomaa teaches physics and mathematics at the Art Institute of New York City.
Statsinger said he disagreed with the city’s description of LaFont’s intervention with Giambra as an “attack” or that her actions escalated the dangers of the situation.
“Rather than interfering with the responders’ task, her providing them with accurate medical information about Peltomaa could have assisted them in managing the situation more effectively,” the judge wrote.
LaFont’s attorney, Daniel Arshack of Arshack, Hajek & Lehrman, said his client has resisted for more than six months the city’s attempts to have the case adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.
“An ACD is not a resolution on the merits and is a kind of probation,” Archack said. “Ms. LaFont knew she had done no wrong and wanted a court to determine, on the facts, that no crime had been committed. That is precisely what the Court did.”
While “heartened” by Statsinger’s ruling, Arshack said LaFont’s confidence in the police has been shaken by her arrest—she was held for 19 hours by police, he said—and prosecution.
“She is certain that she will never again call 911 for assistance,” Arshack said in an interview.
Assistant Manhattan District Attorney Christopher Hirsch represented the prosecution.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at email@example.com.