When Officer Daniel Conklin arrested an Edgewood consultant on the serious felony of assaulting a cop, he submitted plenty of evidence to back up the charges — at least, that’s what he maintained until Monday, when he couldn’t reproduce most of the proof for a federal jury.
In a civil suit that a jury is expected to decide Tuesday, Dennis Serfilippi, a 54-year-old startup advisor, has accused Conklin (since promoted to detective, despite an Internal Affairs file confirming multiple violations of citizens’ rights) and his supervisor Jason Rentkowicz (also promoted to lieutenant) of false arrest and malicious prosecution.
The claims stem from a Jan. 11, 2016 incident when a minor traffic ticket blew up into an arrest. At that time, Conklin, a four-year cop doing extra-duty, said that Serfilippi nearly caused an accident by stepping into a construction zone on Elm Street, that Serfilippi evaded a ticket by refusing to provide an ID, and that Serfilippi finally injured him by slamming a front door shut, right on his finger.
Yet much of the evidence backing up those charges has vanished, as revealed in court Monday.
There’s the witness statement from the Laydon Industries foreman, who was overseeing the work crew. It supposedly collaborated Conklin’s description of Serfilippi’s disorderly conduct in the roadway, but it couldn’t be found. On Friday, the construction foreman said he didn’t remember ever signing off on a final copy of his statements before it was “misplaced.”
Then there are the photographs of Conklin’s bloodied finger. They depicted “a broken nail, bruising, and blistering,” as the officer wrote in a police report right afterwards. They’re also gone.
And finally, Serfilippi’s Samsung cell phone, on which he recorded a confrontation at the door with Conklin, disappeared right after the arrest. Serfilippi alleges that Conklin removed the device after he’d been put in cuffs. The city, in a legal filing, stated that it cannot account for the phone’s whereabouts.
Sgt. Rentkowicz, who was standing feet away during the arrest, had a memory loss on Monday when he took the witness stand: He said couldn’t recall “when or where” Conklin had turned out Serfilippi’s pockets and said he didn’t see a cell phone.
Even a video that Serfilippi’s home-surveillance system recorded, which the cops didn’t know about until a few months ago after the litigation was already well underway, supposedly didn’t pick up all the audio from the incident. Conklin testified under oath that it cut out at key moments that he claimed justified the arrest.
Serfilippi called all of that bogus. He claims that Conklin lashed out, as soon as he asked for his badge number and said he planned to call the officer’s supervisor. He said that Conklin hollered at him, chased him up the front steps, kicked the front door and turned the knob.
Before he showed up in court on Monday, Serfilippi filed an Internal Affairs complaint against Conklin accusing him of falsifying the incident report from January 2016 and lying during a deposition in February 2017 — both of which took place before Conklin saw the home-security video footage.
The Jury’s Duty
Now, with limited exhibits — a stationary video shot from a front window, a partial police report, a few printouts from Google Maps, and two days of contradictory testimony — a jury of eight must hash out what happened on that blustery day in 2016. The jurors all come from out of town, three of them from the suburbs where the cops on trial live, Milford and Clinton. Their duty is to figure out if the officers had probable cause to arrest Serfilippi on three charges: disorderly conduct, interfering with an officer and assaulting an policeman.
If Serfilippi can show that any of the three charges against him — even just one — didn’t have a basis in fact, he’ll have established the malicious prosecution claim. To win on the false arrest claim, he’ll have to show that all three didn’t have a basis in fact.
Because this is a civil trial, the burden of proof by which the jury evaluates those claims is lower than in criminal court. Serfilippi must prove only that it’s more likely than not that the cops lacked probable cause, a standard known as a preponderance of the evidence. Nothing definitive or “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Read on below for a review of each charge that Conklin submitted to prosecutors, the conflicting statements that were presented by the witnesses, and the judge’s guidance on applicable state and federal law.
A Service or An Inconvenience?
Throughout two full days of testimony at the federal courthouse at 141 Church St., jurors watched the 40-minute clips captured by Serfilippi’s Nest camera on repeat — practically 10 times, Rentkowicz noted at one point. (Click above to watch a shortened version.) The attorneys started, paused and replayed the clip of Serfilippi walking into the road again and again, as they asked witnesses to review traffic patterns, hand gestures, and sight-lines.
It all built toward three main questions that will lead the jury to determine if Conklin was right to stick the first misdemeanor charge on Serfilippi for disorderly conduct.
Did Serfilippi obstruct traffic when he entered the roadway outside his Elm Street home, a few doors down from the intersection with Brownell Street?
Did he do it with the intention of helping his elderly mother, then 83 years old, safely pull out of their driveway? Or did he do it to cause “inconvenience, annoyance or alarm,” as the state law requires for the charge to stick, to the Laydon Industries crew repaving the street?
Either way, did his behavior seem so reckless that his intent didn’t matter? In other words, did he show such conscious disregard for the substantial, unjustifiable risk of causing a car accident that he’d be guilty, even with an otherwise worthy motive?
Serfilippi said he was just trying to help his mom get to an appointment as Conklin failed to do his job directing traffic. After he watched from his living room as she unsuccessfully attempted to get the construction crew’s attention for several minutes, Serfilippi went out to assist her.
Why didn’t he ask Conklin for help? “Because it was clear to me, from having just looked out the window, what was going on,” Serfilippi testified. “Nobody had any interest in helping her. They were just standing there. My mother had already gone out and asked the construction crew to move.”
“Now, when you exit the home at this time, you were — I believe the word you used was — ‘agitated’?” Michael Wolak, the city lawyer defending the two cops, asked Friday.
“I didn’t use that,” Serfilippi said on the stand, instead remarking that he was “irritated and annoyed.” Why? “I’d been up late working, and I should not have had to go out on this day to help my mother get out of the driveway when there appeared to be seven able-bodied people who could have done so.”
“But did they know that your mother was trying to exit the driveway?” Wolak inquired. “And did you know if any of the construction crew members spoke English?”
“Well, I’m hoping that they do, because if there’s a construction site that’s as dangerous as Officer Conklin said, I hope so,” Serfilippi answered.
Outside, Serfilippi stepped into the roadway. He held up his hand to a car that had been idling in Elm Street, while a roller went back and forth across both lanes of traffic. As Serfilippi turned to say something to the crew, his hand still up, the car went through.
Conklin argued that nearly caused an accident.
“2” Near-Accidents Become “1” ...
But that’s only half as bad as what Conklin said immediately after at Serfilippi’s door. In the conversation the camera caught, the cop accused Serfilippi of nearly causing two crashes — a discrepancy that Serfilippi’s lawyer Joseph Merly grilled the officer about during cross-examination.
Merly: “We could hear you say that he almost just caused two accidents.”
Conklin: “Yes, sir.”
Merly: “Do you remember two accidents?”
Conklin: “I don’t recall.”
Merly: “Yet you clearly accused him of almost causing two accidents.”
Conklin: “Yes, sir.”
Merly: “You said on direct examination that it was really only one.”
Conklin: “Yes, sir.”
Merly: “But hadn’t that [near-accident] occurred a mere second before [you spoke] those words?”
Conklin: “Yes, sir.”
Merly: “What had happened a second prior turned to almost two accidents when speaking to Mr. Serfilippi?”
Conklin: “Yes, sir. I didn’t mean that directly.”
Merly: “That’s just a mistake? Not an exaggeration, where one becomes two, it’s doubled second later?”
Conklin: “I believe it was just a mistake, sir.”
Serfilippi, for his part, argued that he actually averted an accident. He maintains that the construction worker operating a roller machine didn’t see a car behind him, until he started yelling.
“Get It” or “Ticket”?
The case might be open and shut if jurors conclude there was no basis for Conklin to follow up on the incident. That’s because the two other crimes that Serfilippi was charged with, by law, can be applied only “in the performance of [a] peace officer’s duties.”
In other words, if Conklin shouldn’t have been trying to follow Serfilippi onto his porch, then the officer didn’t have a legal justification for demanding a form of identification nor for sticking a finger inside his entryway.
If, on the other hand, jurors conclude Serfilippi did deserve some form of punishment, then they’ll be asked to examine whether probable cause existed for interfering with an officer afterwards. That happens when a person “obstructs, resists, hinders or endangers” a cop from doing his job.
That happens when citizens refuse to turn over their ID, as several major court cases have ruled. The closest example: In 2008, cops said they planned to issue an infraction ticket to a woman in Bridgeport who’d made a dangerous three-point turn. She refused to give them any paperwork; cursed at them, saying, “To protect and serve? Yeah right, my ass”; then hopped into another car and drove off, despite the officers ordering her not to leave the scene. The police found her an hour and a half later inside a hospital emergency room and charged her with two interference charges, for not giving them identification and fleeing the scene. The State Supreme Court upheld both.
One big question is different in this case: Did Conklin immediately tell Serfilippi that he was going to issue him a ticket? Or did he not inform him until after Serfilippi had entered his house — meanwhile, catching Conklin’s finger in the door — and had called 911 on the officer?
The presiding federal judge, Jeffrey A. Meyer, explained why the two timelines are quite different, after Wolak unsuccessfully asked him to dismiss the entire case Monday morning. “It does seem quite different when you’re already in your home, even if it’s about an incident that occurred quite recently outside your home,” Meyer said. “Because one is involved with a request for information in the public sphere [on one] side of the door, and the other means a homeowner in his home, what’s supposed to be a protected [space].” He offered a hypothetical: “If the police call my telephone and I’m in my living room, and they say, ‘Please furnish me your name and date of birth.’ And I say, ‘I’m not going to answer that question,’ am I guilty of interfering with an officer?”
This factual dispute of when Conklin first said the word “ticket,” which is at the heart of the interference charge, will rests largely on what the jury hears in a muddled portion of the audio as Serfilippi is walking up his steps.
Serfilippi’s version: “At that point, he’s still on, ‘Stay out of the roadway. Do you get it?’ As in, Do you get what I’m saying? Then, I said, ‘You can talk all you want. I’m gonna call a supervisor.’”
Conklin’s version: “I directed him out of the roadway, told him it wasn’t safe and then told him I’d issue an infraction ticket.”
Pressed by Wolak during cross-examination to agree that Conklin had said “ticket,” Serfilippi refused. “That’s not correct. I’ve listened to this tape hundred of times,” he said. “I didn’t hear it now, and I didn’t hear it that day. I’m sorry, I know you want it to say that, but it doesn’t say that.”
Conklin: “I Can’t Speak For The Audio”
While that part of the tape is unclear, Conklin testified that at other moments Serfilippi refused to follow his command. Namely, the officer said he told Serfilippi to exit his house — a demand Conklin maintained that he stated even though it doesn’t show up on the tape that he listened to repeatedly over two days of testimony.
Merly: “Is it your testimony that when we play the videos and see Mr. Serfilippi, that you make more than one request for him to leave the house?”
Conklin: “I’m not sure what the audio picks up.”
Merly: “It did pick up quite a lot of detail of the conversation between you and Mr. Serfilippi.”
Conklin: “Yes, sir.”
Merly: “In some of those, will we hear that repeated request to leave the house?”
Conklin: “I can’t tell exactly, I don’t have the video personally. I know that part of the audio did pick up or not pick up.”
Merly: “Is it your testimony that the audio cut out each time that you asked him to leave the house? ”
Conklin: “I can’t speak for the audio. That’s all I’m saying.”
Merly: “Is there anything else you can testify that the audio did not pick up?”
Conklin: “Not that I can remember now.”
Merly: “Just that, you repeatedly asking him to leave the house?”
Conklin: “Yes, sir.”
During the exchange through the closed front door, Serfilippi said he didn’t provide any identification to Conklin, because he didn’t have a license on him, only a billfold. He added that he told Conklin he was willing to resolve the matter when a supervisor arrived on scene, but at that point, he felt “scared” to open the door.
“There was something about his behavior from the moment I asked for his badge number that told me something isn’t right with this person,” Serfilippi explained. “He had a gun, and he appeared angry.”
“I May Have” Or “I Don’t Know”?
The most serious charge that Conklin leveled at Serfilippi was that he had assaulted an officer, a felony that carries up to a 10-year prison sentence.
Conklin testified that after he told Serfilippi he planned to issue an infraction, he then switched over to “try to do some type of deescalation techniques.” He walked behind Serfilippi “with my hands in my pockets,” he said. And at the entryway to the house, he claimed, he “leaned on the door.” “I try to bring down the conversation by having a softer posture,” he said.
Merly: “Let me make sure I’m exactly clear. It’s your testimony that, in the two seconds it took for Mr. Serfilippi to open, close and lock the door, in that period of time, you’ve crossed the entire porch, put your hand up, just casually deescalated and began a conversation? All within two seconds?”
Conklin: “Yes, sir.”
After that, Serfilippi slammed the door shut, and he caught Conklin’s finger.
Like interference, this charge also depends on whether Conklin was indeed performing his legal duties when his hand was in the doorframe. Judge Meyer questioned whether the officer’s finger should have been there at all.
That potential intrusion — even if just by a fingernail’s length — may have violated of the Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, meaning any injury might not have been a crime, Meyer reasoned. He offered another hypothetical: “So, if I have an officer who climbed in a window without consent and he was injured inside because he tripped over something, then the statute would not properly apply.”
In court, Merly tried to portray Conklin’s actions as an act of aggression, rather than deescalation. Serfilippi had earlier testified that the cop kicked his door and turned the knob.
Merly questioned the officer about the several loud bangs that can be heard on the videotape, continuing after the door is first slammed closed. Serfilippi had said the sounds emanated from the bottom of the door, leading him to surmise that the officer was kicking it.
Conklin, during his turn on the stand, said he wasn’t sure what caused the noises, but he did admit that he “pushed” the door as he reacted to the pain.
Merly: “Is it your testimony that your pushing the door made the sounds?”
Conklin: “I don’t know what made the sounds. … I can’t tell the causes.”
Merly: “What do you think his father was yelling, ‘Hey! Hey!’ for?”
Conklin: “I’m not sure.”
Merly: “Do you know if it was directed at you?”
Conklin: “I couldn’t say, sir.”
Merly also asked whether Conklin had tried the doorknob. During a deposition, Conklin said, “Perhaps, I may have.” In court, his answer changed slightly, to saying he “didn’t believe” he had. Merly pointed out the difference.
“In the deposition, you indicated, ‘I may have.’ Now, today, under an oath before a jury, it’s just ‘I don’t know’?” the attorney asked.
“I don’t want to commit to a definitive answer either way,” Conklin responded.
City’s Backup Plan
For each of the charges, the police officers need not prove that Serfilippi was indeed guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, only that there was probable cause. In Meyer’s reading of the case law, that means a “fair probability of criminal conduct in light of the totality of the circumstances.” That’s not dead certainty nor is it mere suspicion, he added.
Even if the jurors find that probable cause did not exist, the cops will have a second chance to be cleared. At the end of testimony on Monday, Wolak asked Meyer to review the facts in light of public servant’s “qualified immunity.” By that, he meant the “breathing room to make reasonable, if sometimes mistaken, judgements without facing disabling liability.” By that standard, the cops only needed to have “arguable” probable cause not to face a penalty.
To resolve the claim, Meyer designed a special verdict form with additional subsets of questions beyond how the jury decided on false arrest and malicious prosecution. Based on their fact-finding, the judge will make an additional ruling, if necessary, on whether there was some arguable probable cause.
Even then, Rentkowicz might have some additional leeway, since the city argued that it’s solely the line officer’s job to make an arrest and not the supervisor’s responsibility to intercede, as Wolak claimed during a charge conference to discuss jury instructions.
Earlier, on the stand, Rentkowicz had admitted that he participated in the decision to arrest Serfilippi, by concurring with Conklin’s decision during a briefing. Serfilippi maintained that Rentkowicz had a “duty and obligation to protect from an unlawful [arrest],” as his complaint alleged, essentially, a responsibility to intervene.
But Wolak argued, “He left that up to the officer. He can’t interfere in an arrest because he wasn’t there on the scene.”
Meyer balked, “Isn’t that a little bit odd?”
Meyer: “It’s not?”
Meyer: “A supervisory officer on the scene who washes his hands of it?”
Wolak: “If there is definitely something wrong with the arrest, I think a supervisor at that point would step in. But based on the information that the supervisor receives from an officer on the scene as to what they saw and what their beliefs are and there’s no reason to doubt that, then the supervisor can’t say no to the officer.”
Meyer: “He can’t? I thought the act of arresting is discretionary?”
Wolak: “It’s at the discretion of the arresting officer.”
Meyer: “So in New Haven, it’s vested in the lowest person, not the supervisor?”
Wolak: “Your honor, it’s the person on the scene. If the person on the scene sees what happens and the supervisor comes, unless something is really out of whack, the supervisor cannot say, ‘Don’t arrest them.’”
Meyer said he needed to think about how to instruct the jury on that one.
On Tuesday he plans to deliver final charges to the jury, explaining the law as it applies to the case. Then, both lawyers will have 45 minutes to make their case in a closing statement, before the jury retires to deliberate.