to the District of Columbia Pretrial Services Agency, and were forbidden from going to or near the Chancery of Sierra Leone.
On September 16th, the plaintiffs were directed to appear at police headquarters for a line-up. Each of the seven plaintiffs were identified by Chancery personnel as among those that had been in the Chancery the morning of September 9, 1981. On March 12, 1982, the United States Attorney's Office declined prosecution of the seven plaintiffs and their cases were dismissed. The plaintiffs presented their administrative claims pursuant to the FTCA, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2401(b), 2675(a), and 2680(h) in a timely fashion on September 6, 1983.
Conclusions of Law
The United States is liable under the FTCA for tort claims "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances" would be. 28 U.S.C. § 2674. The FTCA explicitly provides that the Government's liability shall be determined "in accordance with the law of the place where the [wrongful] act or omission occurred." 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2672.
Under the tort law of the District of Columbia, the elements of the torts of false arrest and false imprisonment are (1) the detention or restraint of one against his will within boundaries fixed by the defendant, and (2) the unlawfulness of the restraint. Faniel v. C & P Telephone Co., 404 A.2d 147, 150 (D.C. App. 1979). The torts of false arrest and false imprisonment are indistinguishable. Shaw v. May Department Stores, Inc., 268 A.2d 607, 609 n.2 (D.C. App. 1970).
The "focal point" in this type of action "is the question whether the arresting officer was justified in ordering the arrest of the plaintiffs; if so the conduct of the arresting officer is privileged and the action fails." Dellums v. Powell, 184 U.S. App. D.C. 275, 566 F.2d 167, 175 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Under District of Columbia law, the detention is presumed to be unlawful once "an allegation [is made] that a plaintiff was arrested and imprisoned without process." Clarke v. District of Columbia, 311 A.2d 508, 511 (D.C. App. 1973). The burden then shifts to the defendant to justify the arrest. Id., accord Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 556-57, 18 L. Ed. 2d 288, 87 S. Ct. 1213 (1967). Justification can be established by showing that the arresting officer had probable cause for arrest of the plaintiff on the grounds charged or that he had a reasonable basis to believe that a crime had been committed and the officer acted in good faith in making the arrest. Dellums v. Powell, 566 F.2d at 175.
Thus, the only issue is whether Agent Nicoletti, the arresting officer, "acted in good faith in arresting plaintiffs and whether his actions were reasonable in light of all the circumstances." Id., at 176; accord Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 247-48, 40 L. Ed. 2d 90, 94 S. Ct. 1683 (1974). The facts of this case, while they may indicate good faith on Agent Nicoletti's part, certainly do not demonstrate that his actions were reasonable. Agents Nicoletti and Werth never saw any of the plaintiffs on Chancery property, let alone witness any act of violence threatened or committed by plaintiffs. Sergeant Tutka and Officers Kielbasa and Lee, the first law enforcement officials on the scene, testified that they saw no evidence of any illegal or threatening activity and that Charge d'Affaires Seray-Wurie wanted only that the plaintiffs and others depart the Chancery, not that they be arrested. No victims of the alleged violence committed by plaintiffs offered any testimony at trial.
Further, the Court is confronted with the fact that the plaintiffs were identified to Agent Nicoletti by Mr. Seray-Wurie as he spied them on the opposite sidewalk from his second-story window. While Agent Nicoletti is to be commended for consulting with his superiors before taking action, the fact that the group which included the plaintiffs was allowed to leave the scene only to be detained and arrested many blocks away does nothing to support the reasonableness of Agent Nicoletti's actions.
Thus, while Agent Nicoletti may have had an honest belief that plaintiffs had violated 18 U.S.C. § 112(a), the Court concludes that this belief was not a reasonable one in light of the facts available to him at the scene. While the Court does not favor second-guessing trained law enforcement officials, neither can it sit idle when the weight of the evidence indicates that the arrest in issue amounted to an unwarranted interference with plaintiffs' personal liberties.
Despite the intangible nature of the injury suffered and the lack of substantial evidence regarding any real losses sustained, the Court must, nevertheless, weigh the significance of the defendant's transgression. The concept of personal freedom is at the core of our democratic beliefs. When such a principal element of our democratic system is violated, retribution (imprecise though it may be) must be made as testimony to the freedoms we value so highly. See Dellums v. Powell, 566 F.2d at 194-96. Accordingly, the Court awards each plaintiff $1,500 in damages. An order is attached.
This case was tried to the Court. For the reasons set forth in the accompanying opinion, it is by the Court this 25th day of February 1986,
ORDERED that judgment is entered for plaintiffs; it is further
ORDERED that each plaintiff be awarded $1,500; and it is further
ORDERED that upon entry of judgment, this case is dismissed.