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Long v. Abbott

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 27, 2017

ARTHUR J. LONG, Plaintiff,
v.
OFFICER BRENT D. ABBOTT, Defendant.

          ORDER ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR NEW TRIAL

          JOHN A. WOODCOCK, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court denies the Plaintiff's motion for new trial because it concludes that its instruction on the meaning of possession under the drinking in public statute was correct and, if not, the Plaintiff's failure to propose any jury instructions on the definition of possession, and his failure to object to the given instruction either at the charge conference or at trial, doom his demand for a new trial.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural History

         On July 22, 2015, Arthur J. Long filed a lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in this Court against Brent Abbott, an officer with the Portland Police Department, and others, alleging that Officer Abbott had violated his constitutional rights by arresting him without probable cause and by using excessive force against him in effecting the arrest.[1] Compl. (ECF No. 1). The case was tried before a jury on May 30-31, 2017, and on May 31, 2017, the jury issued a verdict in favor of Officer Abbott. Jury Verdict (ECF No. 97). On May 31, 2017, the Court duly reduced the verdict to judgment. J. (ECF No. 98).

         On June 5, 2017, Mr. Long filed a motion for partial new trial. Pl.'s Mot. for Partial New Trial Pursuant to F.R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) (ECF No. 99) (Pl.'s Mot.). On June 15, 2017, Officer Abbott objected. Def.'s Obj. to Pl.'s Mot. for Partial New Trial Pursuant to F.R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) (ECF No. 100) (Def.'s Opp'n). On June 19, 2017, Mr. Long replied. Pl.'s Reply Mem. Pursuant to F.R. Civ. P. 59(a)(1)(A) (Pl.'s Reply).

         B. The Trial

         In response to a complaint from a local businessperson, Officer Brent Abbott was dispatched by the Portland Police Department to 24 Preble Street in Portland, Maine, at around 11:39 p.m. on August 9, 2014. The police dispatcher told Officer Abbott that there were four or five males drinking beer just outside 24 Preble Street. When Officer Abbott arrived shortly after dispatch, he encountered two males on the steps of 24 Preble Street, and he noticed beers all around the stoop. Officer Abbott observed that the cans of beer were within easy reach, perhaps two inches, away from Mr. Long. At least one of the cans of beer near Mr. Long was sweating, which suggested to Officer Abbott that the beer inside the can was still cold since it was a warm night. Officer Abbott did not see either man actually drinking beer.

         Officer Abbott concluded that there was probable cause to believe that Mr. Long had been drinking in public, and the officer demanded Mr. Long identify himself by giving the officer his name and date of birth. Mr. Long refused to identify himself. This refusal led to Mr. Long's arrest. The jury concluded that Mr. Long had not proven by a preponderance of the evidence that Officer Long lacked probable cause to arrest him for failing or refusing to identify himself in violation of Mr. Long's federal constitutional rights. Verdict Form at 1 (ECF No. 97).

         C. The Legal Issue

         These facts presented a layered legal issue. In order for Officer Abbott to properly arrest Mr. Long for failing to provide identification, Officer Abbott had to have probable cause to believe that Mr. Long had committed or was committing an underlying crime. The underlying crime that Officer Abbott believed Mr. Abbott had committed was drinking in public, a violation of 17 M.R.S. section 2003-A(2):[2]

A person is guilty of public drinking if the person drinks liquor in any public place within 200 feet of a notice posted conspicuously in the public place by the owner or authorized person that forbids drinking in the public place or after being forbidden to do so personally by a law enforcement officer, unless the person has been given permission to do so by the owner or authorized person.

         Setting aside other issues, the drinking in public statute requires that the person be actually drinking liquor. Id. (“if the person drinks liquor”). However, the statute goes on to state:

The possession of an open container of liquor in a public place is prima facie evidence of a violation of this section.

17 M.R.S. § 2003-A(3).

         On this issue, echoing the statute and interpreting Maine caselaw, the Court instructed the jury:

Maine law also provides that the possession of an open container of liquor in a public place is prima facie evidence of a violation of law. If you find that Mr. Long possessed an open container of liquor, then the law permits the inference from this fact that Mr. Long was in violation of this law. The law also provides that possession of an object means that the object was subject to a person's dominion and control. To find that Mr. Long possessed an open container of liquor and that the rule of prima facie evidence applies, Mr. Long had to have the object within his dominion and control.

         Although he did not object to this instruction at trial, Mr. Long is now objecting to the instruction on the ground that the Court erred when it instructed the jury on constructive possession. In his motion for new trial, Mr. Long contends that the Court should have instructed the jury that this statute requires actual, not constructive possession. Pl.'s Mot. at 1-3.

         II. THE ...


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