Rikers Island jail complex (Bebeto Matthews)
New York City has reached a $4 million settlement in a protracted false imprisonment and malicious prosecution case brought by a woman jailed for four years on a murder charge that ultimately was dropped.
David Perecman of the Perecman Firm in Manhattan said he agreed to the settlement Tuesday on behalf of Maria De Lourdes Torres. A trial in the two related civil claims brought by De Lourdes against New York City, Torres v. Jones, 24709/07 and 1590/10, was set to begin Jan. 23 in Queens Supreme Court.
The case was litigated for more than a decade.
Perecman said the compensation breaks down to about $1 million for each of the four years that Torres was jailed at Rikers Island before charges were dropped in 2007.
He said his research revealed no other cases where criminal suspects who brought similar cases to jury verdicts in the Appellate Division, Second Department, had received larger awards for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.
Perecman said the case was a significant one in the area of municipal liability for false arrests and prosecutions because of the way the litigation was revived by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, last year after being summarily thrown out by Queens Supreme Court Justice Kevin Kerrigan, and by a unanimous Second Department panel.
The Court of Appeals invoked a 1983 precedent to hold that Torres could press her claims that the city could not deflect her action solely on the basis that the New York Police Department had probable cause for arresting her in the stabbing of boyfriend Einstein Romeo Acuno in 2002.
The state’s highest court said it was the first time it had clarified that the probable cause defense could be overcome by the filing of a false confession by police in a malicious prosecution case (NYLJ, Feb. 24, 2016).
New York City’s Department of Law confirmed the settlement Wednesday.
“After a review of the issues raised by the Court of Appeals, the evidence and the findings of the district attorney which pointed to Ms. Torres’ likely innocence, we have determined that this settlement is fair and in the best interests of the city,” a statement from the Law Department said.
Perecman said he planned to argue at trial that Torres was coerced into signing a confession after a 22-hour interrogation. He contended that the woman was “extremely uneducated,” incapable of coping with the stress of the lengthy questioning and vulnerable to making false admissions.
Torres was indicted for murder and held in jail for more than four years until murder charges were dropped against her in 2007 on the motion of prosecutors. DNA evidence ultimately showed the presence of Acuno’s blood and that of two unidentified males, but not Torres’ blood, Perecman said.
When the Torres case was before the Court of Appeals, the state Trial Lawyers Association filed an amicus curiae urging the judges to find that Torres could pursue her claims against the city. It said that despite the 1983 ruling in Colon v. City of New York, 60 NY2d 78, courts had erroneously interpreted the law as meaning that arrests on the basis of probable cause created an insurmountable obstacle to plaintiffs’ claims for malicious prosecution.
Perecman said in an interview Wednesday that the Torres matter extends to wronged plaintiffs the same ability to bring claims in state court for false imprisonment and malicious prosecution that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized plaintiffs may bring in federal court.
“Our argument had been to get [to the state Court of Appeals] is that you can’t be walking down Vesey Street headed east in Manhattan and you make a right to the federal court and your case is OK, but you make a left to state Supreme Court and you are dead meat,” he said. “You can’t allow the federal courts to have a different standard than the state courts.”
Several attorneys from the Department of Law’s tort and appeals divisions represented the city in the settlement with Torres.
Perecman said the Acuno slaying, caused by more than 20 stab wounds, remains unsolved.