Officer Does Not Establish Necessary ‘Perversion Of Process’

Michael Watson was a police officer with the Jamestown, New York Police Department. Watson was questioned by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in connection with its investigation of a missing woman with whom Watson had a relationship. The FBI reported to the Department that its investigation revealed that Watson had been stalking women.

The Department launched an internal investigation and, after receiving statements from three women, prepared a warrant to arrest Watson on charges of stalking, harassment, and official misconduct. The warrant was signed by a judge and, on the day on which Watson was arrested, the Department held a press conference concerning the charges.

Watson was subsequently indicted. A preliminary order dismissing seven counts of the indictment was subsequently partially reversed, and Watson awaits trial on at least one criminal count.

Watson brought a lawsuit under New York law for “abuse of process.” Watson contended that the arrest warrant was used by the City to gain an advantage at a civil service hearing that was being conducted to terminate him as a police officer.

The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court dismissed Watson’s lawsuit. The Court found that a claim of “abuse of process” has three essential elements: “(1) Regularly-issued process, either civil or criminal; (2) an intent to do harm without excuse or justification; and (3) use of the process in a perverted manner to obtain a collateral objective.”

The Court found that the City established that, in seeking the warrant, it did not intend to harm Watson “without excuse or justification.” The Court also found that the City established that it did not use the arrest warrant to gain an advantage at the civil service hearing. Rather, in the eyes of the Court, the City proved that it “had sought the warrant based upon sworn statements given by three women. Watson submitted the affidavits of two of those women, each of them indicated that she never requested that criminal charges be brought against Watson. Those women, however, did not refute the statements given by them to the Department, and we note that they were not required to request that criminal charges be brought against Watson nor was it necessary for the Department to obtain their consent to do so.”

Watson also brought a claim that the press conference held by the Department constituted defamation of character. The Court dismissed this claim as well, finding that Watson was a “public official” for purposes of defamation law. The Court ruled that the City “established its entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by demonstrating that the remarks that allegedly defamed Watson were true with the exception of one remark that was a misstatement that was not made with malice.”

Watson v. City of Jamestown, 867 N.Y.S.2d 815 (N.Y.A.D. 2008).

This article appears in the February 2009 issue