United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, District Judge.
In 2011, Dionell Payne sued three Chicago police officers (Sergeant Richard Maher and Officers Peter Medina and Miguel Bautista), two civilians (William Denton and Jerry Henderson), and the City of Chicago. The case concerned Payne's arrest and prosecution on a charge of attempted armed robbery. Denton and Henderson were the alleged victims who made the complaint against Payne; Maher, Medina, and Bautista participated in arresting and charging Payne. Payne asserted claims of false arrest, malicious prosecution, denial of due process rights, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy.
The police officer defendants moved for summary judgment in 2013. The Court granted summary judgment in their favor on all of Payne's claims except his section 1983 false arrest claim and his state law malicious prosecution claim. Those two claims proceeded to trial in November 2014, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of the police officer defendants on both claims. Judgment by default was later entered against Denton and Henderson.
Payne has now moved for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 based on evidence that he contends was improperly admitted. For their part, the police officer defendants (from here on in, "defendants") have petitioned the Court to award costs incurred during the litigation pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(d)(1). The Court denies Payne's motion for a new trial but declines to award costs.
A. Motion for a new trial
Payne argues that the Court should grant him a new trial based on evidence that he contends was improperly admitted. A new trial is appropriate under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(a) "if the jury's verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence or if the trial was in some way unfair to the moving party." Venson v. Altamirano, 749 F.3d 641, 656 (7th Cir. 2014). A district court has "broad latitude to control the admission of evidence." United States v. Calabrese, 572 F.3d 362, 368 (7th Cir. 2009). Even if evidence was improperly admitted, a court should grant a new trial only in "extraordinary situations" where the "the improperly admitted evidence had a substantial influence over the jury, and the result reached was inconsistent with substantial justice." Shick v. Ill. Dep't of Human Servs., 307 F.3d 605, 611 (7th Cir. 2002).
As a threshold matter, defendants contend that Payne failed to request a limiting instruction and, in so doing, "waived any right to now claim that evidence was prejudicial." Defs.' Resp. to Pl.'s Mot. for a New Trial at 3. The cases defendants cite for this proposition, however, involved situations in which the party refused a limiting instruction that was offered by the trial court. See Common v. City of Chicago, 661 F.3d 940, 946 (7th Cir. 2011) (noting that the plaintiff chose to "forego the limiting instruction" as a "legal strategy, " and observing that "[a] party who declines the opportunity to have a limiting instruction, waives the right to claim that he has been prejudiced by evidence that is otherwise relevant and admissible"); Goetz v. Cappelen, 946 F.2d 511, 514 (7th Cir. 1991) ("Having declined the opportunity to minimize any potential prejudice, defendants cannot now complain that they are entitled to a new trial. In other words, the defendants cannot have it both ways-the defendants cannot refuse a limiting instruction and then claim on appeal that the evidence was unfairly prejudicial."). Here, by contrast, Payne did not refuse a limiting instruction that was offered to him. Rather, he simply did not request one. Common and Goetz are therefore inapposite. Payne timely filed motions in limine, and because the Court definitively ruled on the motions, his objections to admitting the evidence were preserved. See United States v. LeShore, 543 F.3d 935, 939 (7th Cir. 2008) ("If the pretrial ruling is definitive... no trial objection is necessary to preserve the objection for review.").
Payne contends that two items of evidence were improperly admitted: evidence of a threat he made to a witness and evidence of his gang affiliation. The threat evidence was offered, in part, to rebut Payne's claimed damages; both items of evidence were also offered to show that the criminal proceedings against Payne were not terminated in a manner indicative of his innocence. In Illinois, "a plaintiff can not [sic] recover for malicious prosecution unless he shows that the criminal proceeding at issue was terminated in his favor." Logan v. Caterpillar, Inc., 246 F.3d 912, 924 (7th Cir. 2001). When "a prosecutor formally abandons the proceeding via a nolle prosequi "-as here-the criminal proceeding is terminated "in favor of the accused... unless the abandonment is for reasons not indicative of the innocence of the accused." Northfield Ins. Co. v. City of Waukegan, 701 F.3d 1124, 1131 (7th Cir. 2012) (quoting Swick v. Liautaud, 169 Ill.2d 504, 513, 662 N.E.2d 1238, 1242-43 (1996)). "[M]isconduct on the part of the accused for the purpose of preventing trial, " as well as "the impossibility or impracticability of bringing the accused to trial, " can suggest that abandonment of the proceedings is not indicative of innocence. Swick, 169 Ill.2d at 513, 662 N.E.2d at 1243. "[T]he unavailability of a key witness" can also suggest "that the prosecutors dropped [the] case for some reason not indicative of innocence." Northfield Ins. Co., 701 F.3d at 1132.
1. Evidence of threatening remark
Payne allegedly made a threatening remark to an officer during the state court criminal proceeding on the attempted armed robbery charge. Although that charge was dropped, Payne pled guilty to intimidating a witness. The Court admitted evidence of the threatening remark but excluded evidence of the plea and conviction. Payne argues that evidence of the remark was not relevant and that even if it was relevant, it was unduly prejudicial.
"Relevant evidence is generally admissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 402, but may be excluded if it is unduly prejudicial." United States v. Molton, 743 F.3d 479, 482 (7th Cir. 2014). Relevant evidence is unduly prejudicial "if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of... unfair prejudice." Fed.R.Evid. 403.
Admitting this evidence was proper. First of all, the evidence reasonably could be understood as shedding light on the circumstances under which the attempted armed robbery charged against Payne was dismissed. But that aside, the evidence was relevant on the question of damages. Payne contended that he was innocent of the attempted armed robbery charge. He expressly advanced this contention during his testimony on direct examination and in closing argument. See Nov. 12, 2014 Tr. 228, 238, 240, 242; Nov. 14, 2014 Tr. 608-09. And, perhaps more significantly for present purposes, he expressly tied his claim for damages to his innocence and the fact that he had been wrongly accused. See Nov. 12, 2014 Tr. 238 ("Q:... [C]an you describe what your day-to-day life [while incarcerated] was like? A:... Livid, you know, locked up for something that I know I didn't do. Mad at the justice system because I felt at the time I was charged it failed me...."), 242 ("Q: Did knowing that you'd been wrongly accused of a crime, did that affect your moods at all? A: Yes, it did. It kind of put me in an anti-sociable way, didn't want to trust anybody, didn't know who to trust.... Just not having trust in the system or the people that I was around."), 608-09 (closing argument; asking the jury to consider Payne's innocence in determining his damages). This was a viable strategy; a reasonable jury certainly could find that an innocent person wrongly incarcerated would suffer a greater degree of emotional anguish due to his innocence. But by making this contention, Payne put at issue his guilt on the underlying charge. That, without more, made it appropriate for defendants to challenge his claim of innocence. The Court considered this in concluding, at the final pretrial conference, that evidence of Payne's guilt was admissible because, "if nothing else, it would affect the damages." Oct. 9, 2014 Tr. 22.
Evidence regarding Payne's attempt to intimidate a witness during the state criminal proceedings on the attempted robbery charge was admissible as tending to show his guilt on that charge. As the Court noted in ruling on the motions in limine, it is a "widely recognized principle that a defendant's attempts to intimidate potential witnesses are probative of his consciousness of guilt." United States v. Mokol, 646 F.3d 479, 483 (7th Cir. 2011); see also United States v. Harmon, 721 F.3d 877, 884 (7th Cir. 2013); United States v. Blake, 286 F.Appx. 337, 340 (7th Cir. 2008) (evidence of threat was "highly probative" of consciousness of guilt). Evidence that Payne had intimated a witness "raise[d] an inference of consciousness of guilt[, ] which raise[d] an inference of actual guilt." Harmon, 721 F.3d at 884.
This evidence, to be sure, was prejudicial to Payne, but the prejudice was not unfair in the way that Federal Rule of Evidence 403 uses that term. Payne put his innocence into play in prosecuting his claims before the jury, and thus it was fair for defendants to attempt to rebut that contention. The Court does not mean by this to suggest that any time a plaintiff in a false arrest, malicious prosecution, or similar case claims he is innocent to support his claim for damages, he opens the door to any and all available evidence of guilt; other rules of admissibility, including Rule 403, still apply. But ...