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Smith v. Aita

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 29, 2016

DARRYLE SMITH, ET AL., Plaintiffs,
JUSTIN AITA, ET AL., Defendants.



On February 18, 2016, a jury in the District of Maryland returned a verdict in favor of defendant Justin Aita and against plaintiffs Darryle Smith and Julian Washington (ECF 63), in connection with plaintiffs' claim that Aita used excessive force during a traffic stop, when plaintiffs were college students. Plaintiffs have filed a motion for new trial (ECF 64, the "Motion"), claiming undue prejudice created by defense counsel's improper reference, during his closing argument, to the recent shooting deaths of two deputy sheriffs in Harford County, Maryland. Id. at 1. Defendant opposes the Motion. ECF 65, "Opposition." No reply has been filed, and the time to do so has expired. See Local Rule 105.2.

No hearing is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I will deny the Motion.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

In an Amended Complaint (ECF 11) filed pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, plaintiffs alleged that on August 24, 2014, they "were profiled, stopped in their vehicle without cause, and held up at gunpoint" by Officer Aita, who then worked for the Salisbury Police Department ("SPD"). Id. ¶ 1.[1] The Amended Complaint contains five claims: violation of plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights (Count I); use of excessive force (Count II); false arrest, in violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments (Count III); negligence as to the SPD and the City of Salisbury (the "City") (Count IV); and intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") as to the SPD and Aita (Count V). Id. ¶¶ 16-42.

Defendants moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint (the "Motion to Dismiss"). ECF 12. By Memorandum Opinion (ECF 15) and Order (ECF 16) of December 22, 2014, I granted the Motion to Dismiss in part and denied it in part. In particular, I dismissed with prejudice all claims as to the SPD as well as Count IV (negligence). ECF 16 at 1. I also dismissed, without prejudice, plaintiffs' Fifth Amendment claim in Count III and all claims against Aita in his official capacity. Id. Further, I dismissed the IIED claim as to Aita. Id. Finally, I bifurcated and stayed the remaining § 1983 claims ( i.e., Counts I, II, and III) against Aita and the City. Id.

On February 10, 2016, six days before trial was scheduled to begin, two Harford County Sheriff's Deputies were shot and killed in Abingdon, Maryland. See Jean Marbella & Jessica Anderson, Violent Past Emerges of Man who Shot, Killed Harford Deputies, Baltimore Sun, Feb. 11, 2016,[2] The tragic deaths of the sheriff's deputies generated substantial media coverage in the days preceding the trial. See, e.g., id. Notwithstanding the extensive media coverage surrounding the deputies' deaths, plaintiffs did not move to postpone the trial or express concern that the extensive media coverage would somehow prejudice the jury. Nor was a motion in limine filed, to preclude any reference to the tragedy.

A three-day jury trial began on February 16, 2016.[3] ECF 50; see ECF 52, ECF 53. The thrust of the defense was that Officer Aita's actions on August 24, 2014, were justified by legitimate concerns for officer safety.

During closing argument, defense counsel referred to the recent shootings of the sheriff's deputies to illustrate the dangers that police officers face. Plaintiffs' counsel promptly objected, and the court quickly held a bench conference, at which plaintiffs' counsel moved for a mistrial. I held the motion sub curia. However, at the conclusion of the bench conference, I struck the comment of defense counsel and instructed the jury to disregard his remarks as to the sheriff's deputies. After closing arguments, I instructed the jury as to the applicable law. In my instructions, I reminded the jury that they were not to consider anything that was stricken from the record.

As noted, on February 28, 2016, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Aita. ECF 62. According to counsel, after the verdict, I denied plaintiffs' motion for a mistrial. ECF 64 at 2; ECF 65 at 1.

On March 1, 2016, plaintiffs filed their Motion. ECF 64. The crux of plaintiffs' argument is that defense counsel's reference to the recent shooting deaths of the two sheriff's deputies was so "inflammatory" and "prejudicial" that a new trial is warranted, notwithstanding my curative instruction. Id. at 2. Plaintiffs assert, id. at 3: "The emotional nature of the comments cannot be forgotten or disregarded; a jury cannot be expected to be deductive and rational when exposed to such emotionally-charged material." In his Opposition (ECF 65), Aita asserts, id. at 3: "Based upon the evidence presented, as well as the Court's curative instruction, the comment did not render the trial unfair...."

II. Standard of Review

Fed. R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) provides, in relevant part:[4] "The court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues-and to any party-... after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court...." "Because every litigant is entitled to one fair trial, not two, ' Glassman Const. Co. v. United States ex rel. Clark-Fontana Paint Co., 421 F.2d 212, 215 (4th Cir. 1970), the decision of whether to grant or deny a motion for a new trial lies within the discretion of the district court, King v. McMillan, 594 F.3d 301, 314 (4th Cir. 2010).'" Wallace v. Poulos, 861 F.Supp.2d 587, 599 (D. Md. 2012); see Butler v. Windsor, ___ F.Supp. 3d. ___, PWG-13-883, 2015 WL 6449128, at *2 (D. Md. Oct. 22, 2015) ("Whether to grant a new trial rests within the sound discretion of the trial court but such discretion must not be arbitrarily exercised.'") (quoting City of Richmond v. Atl. Co., 273 F.2d 902, 916 (4th Cir. 1960)).

"The court must exercise its discretion to grant a new trial only if the verdict (1) is against the clear weight of the evidence, (2) is based upon evidence which is false, or (3) will result in a miscarriage of justice, even though there may be substantial evidence which would prevent the direction of a verdict." Wallace, 861 F.Supp.2d at 599 (citing Knussman v. Maryland, 272 F.3d 625, 639 (4th Cir. 2001)); see King v. McMillan, 594 F.3d 301, 314 (4th Cir. 2010); Atlas Food Sys. & Serv., Inc. v. Crane Nat'l Vendors, Inc., 99 F.3d 587, 594 (4th Cir. 1996); Windsor, 2015 WL 6449128, at *2. "[S]uch a motion should be granted only when it is reasonably clear that prejudicial error has crept into the record or that substantial justice has not been done.'" Poulos, 861 F.Supp.2d at 599 (quoting Pathways Psychosocial v. Town of Leonardtown, Md., 223 F.Supp.2d 699, 706 (D. Md. 2002)). "[T]he burden of showing harmful error rests on the party seeking the new trial." 11 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2803 at ...

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