Wyllie v. State of New York is an interesting case that was recently decided by the Court of Claims. The legal issues aren't all that unusual, but the fact pattern is, as is the Court's conclusion.
In Wyllie, a former King's County Assistant District Attorney brought a claim against the State for wrongful arrest stemming from her arrest by Office of Court Administration court officers in open court while she was performing her duties as an ADA in Brooklyn. Ms. Wyllie was arrested, transported to the 84th precinct, and charged with petit larceny, criminal possession of stolen property, and grand larceny. The charges were later presented to a grand jury, which did not indict.
What did Ms. Wyllie do that lead to this unfortunate series of events, you wonder? She was alleged to have attempted to steal a wallet from a paralegal, Desiree Martinez, during a busy criminal arraignment part in plain view of the entire courtroom. The wallet was located in a purse on top of a filing cabinet and the owner of the wallet, a co-worker with whom Ms. Wyllie had a good relationship, was sitting just a few feet away when the alleged larceny occurred.
Ms. Wyllie claimed that Ms. Martinez handed her a file which was missing paperwork, so she approached Ms. Martinez at her desk, which was located in open court, but she was otherwise occupied, so Ms. Wyllie decided to obtain the forms herself. She then set her own files on top of the filing cabinet next to a purse owned by Ms. Martinez. Ms. Wyllie then bent down and opened the top drawer, at which point the filing cabinet tipped over toward her. As she tried to right the cabinet, she was arrested by one of the court officers.
One of the arresting officers testified that he saw her unzip the pocketbook that was on top of the filing cabinet, take out the wallet, squat down in front of the filing cabinet, and rifle through the wallet while holding it in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet--in open court while Ms. Martinez sat a few feet away. He then approached her and apparently startled her, at which point the filing cabinet began to tip over, and she threw the wallet away from her, towards the pocketbook. She was then taken into custody.
The Court summarized the situation as follows:
On one hand, defendant proffers an account in which an Assistant District Attorney chose to enter a courtroom crowded with a judge, several court officers, police officers, lawyers, defendants and spectators and attempt to steal money from a co-worker with whom she had a friendly personal relationship. On the other hand, claimant seeks to convince the Court that two experienced court officers with whom she had a cordial professional relationship arrested her without cause and fabricated a series of lies to cover their tracks.
The Court held that the claim should be dismissed and concluded that:
Claimant's theory flows from two explanations: either the officers were acting in concert with one another to frame claimant or they mistakenly believed they were witnessing a crime and that belief was not objectively reasonable. The former seems unlikely in that it would have required the court officers to predict that claimant would enter the District Attorney's well of AR-1 and act in a way that dovetailed with their story...(T)he Court is simply not persuaded that the innocuous acts described by claimant could be subject to such gross misinterpretation. Consequently, the Court resolves the factual dispute in favor of the defendant and concludes that the claim must be dismissed.
This case struck me as strange on so many levels. From a factual standpoint, one wonders: 1) why the court officer handled the situation in such a confrontational manner, rather than perhaps making a phone call to a superior who could then call her superiors, 2) why she was charged with a felony for what could easily have been charged as a simple petit larceny, 3) why she was charged at all given that it was probably bad press from the get go and could have presumably been treated as a misunderstanding and not prosecuted, 4) if she was in fact trying to steal the wallet, why she did it in open court--seems like something that only a kleptomaniac would do, and 5) why the grand jury didn't indict her.
Additionally, the Court's decision struck me as odd. The Court conceivably could have held that the officers' belief that she was committing a crime was objectively reasonable and was the result of some sort of strange misunderstanding and left it at that. In other words, the Court could have concluded that it was entirely possible that she hadn't attempted to steal the wallet, but that the officers' conclusions based upon what they could see from their vantage point were objectively reasonable nonetheless. But it seems to me that Court went a step further and inferred that Ms. Wyllie was untruthful.
All in all, it's a strange case. The only possible explanation that I can come up with that might explain the sequence of events that lead up to the filing of the civil claim is that Ms. Wyllie must have been on someone's bad side. So, the moral of the story is: be nice to your colleagues, especially court officers, and, if you happen to be an ADA, be extra-special-nice to your boss.