Eight people who live outside New Haven and say they have never encountered problems with police will decide whether a New Haven cop and his supervisor violated an Edgewood man’s Fourth Amendment rights “against unreasonable search and seizure” in an arrest last year.
The jurors, selected Thursday afternoon, will hear a civil suit in New Haven’s federal courthouse in trial starting Friday. Dennis Serfilippi, a 54-year-old consultant for tech companies, claims in the suit that he was falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted after a minor traffic infraction exploded into an arrest.
On Jan. 11, 2016, Serfilippi walked into the roadway in front of his Edgewood home, where a construction crew was working, to help his mother pull out of the driveway. On his way back to the house, Serfilippi directed a comment toward Daniel Conklin, a New Haven police officer since 2012 who was working extra-duty directing traffic. The situation escalated to a verbal altercation, a door slammed on Conklin’s finger, a seized cell phone that disappeared and an eventual arrest.
Serfilippi filed a federal lawsuit in December 2016, naming Conklin and his supervisor, Sgt. Jason Rentkowicz, as defendants. Conklin, meanwhile, was promoted to detective despite a record of having violated citizens’ rights. (Read more about Serfilippi’s suit and Conklin’s side of the story here.)
Cop Buddies On Jury
The five women and three men, at least seven of whom are white, were hand-picked Thursday from a pool of 80 jurors after an exhaustive day of questioning.
In a process known as voir dire, Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer questioned the potential jurors’ views on a number of topics.
“What’s the purpose of jury selection?” he asked. “To find a truly fair and impartial jury. I’ll ask a whole blow of questions. They’re not meant to pry into anybody’s past business, but to make a determination of one’s fitness to serve on the jury.”
Among the questions: Did anyone recognize any familiar faces in the jury box? (Ten knew each other.) Was anyone a compulsive Googler, who’d have difficulty avoiding news stories about the cases they were poised to decide? Did anyone disagree that Americans deserve the advantage of their Constitutionally guaranteed rights? Did anyone feel they’d been falsely arrested or wrongfully prosecuted? Would anyone have difficulty questioning law enforcement’s motives on the witness stand? Was everyone willing to follow the law, even if they disagreed with it?
Meyer asked them to examine their implicit biases — “any impressions and assumptions, fears and stereotypes” that people might “unconsciously act on,” even though they “consciously abhor them” — that lurked in their thinking. Every juror agreed to recognize the possibility of bias and resist it.
The interrogation, which went on for six hours, helped the lawyers — Joseph Merly, an associate attorney at John R. Williams and Associates representing Serfilippi; and Michael Wolak, a city assistant corporation counsel representing the cops — decide who among the 80 citizens would give their clients the most favorable reading of the evidence.
Both attorneys had a tougher time selecting their ideal panel, because they chose from the leftovers after 21 jurors were impaneled in two other cases first, a criminal trial for an accused heroin dealer from Bridgeport and a civil trial of two Hamden cops who used a stun-gun on a man that subsequently had a seizure.
In the end, they picked a group who’d had a range of experiences with the criminal justice system:
• a female Edible Arrangements employee from Milford who’s close friends with a local cop and knows two relatives who’ve been busted on drug possession charges.
• a male event planner from North Haven who was the victim of an assault three decades ago.
• a retired female factory-worker from Milford whose ex-husband had once inappropriately touched a minor.
• a male financier from Stamford whose cousin was arrested for heroin possession.
• a female high school secretary from Norwich who’s good buddies with the school’s security team, which is staffed by 14 former cops.
• a semi-retired male from Clinton who drives limousines part-time.
• a female court reporter from Colchester who transcribes criminal cases in New London’s courthouse.
• a retired female from East Haddam who used to work for an insurance company.
City “Lost” Cellphone With Video Footage
Serfilippi video-recorded his interaction with then-Officer Conklin the day of his arrest on his cellphone. But the cops seized his cellphone. Then the city informed Serfilippi’s counsel that the cellphone has mysteriously disappeared. So the jury will never be able to view the direct video of the incident. (The city has never announced any regret or disciplinary action for the disappearance of the camera.)
It will be able to watch a less-definitive video account. At trial, the panel will be asked to review approximately 45 minutes of footage, shot by a Nest home-security camera that Serfilippi kept in his front window, that recorded video of the initial traffic incident on Elm Street and audio of the subsequent exchanges with the officers. This video does not show Conklin and his supervisor interacting with Serfilippi. It does show some scenes of the original traffic situation that prompted the incident, and it records the participants’ voices once the dispute began.
Click above to watch this video footage. Some sounds are muted, since the camera was inside the house; near the end of the video, background noise from a television obscures the sounds of Serfilippi’s arrest.
Both sides argued that the footage will prove their case.
“The main evidence is the video. We have different points of view on it,” said Wolak, the city lawyer.
According to Serfilippi’s complaint, here’s what he argues that the video details:
Serfilippi’s “aged mother” needed to get out of her driveway, but the way was blocked by construction vehicles. Meanwhile, Conklin “occupied himself socializing with the construction crew and ignor[ed] the needs of motorists.”
After watching “for a long period of time” while his mom asked for help and while Conklin “completely ignored the situation,” Serfilippi “stepped into the street and helped his mother get her car out of the driveway and then returned to his house.”
Having “observed this,” Conklin “became enraged and began pounding his fist” on Serfilippi’s front door, “demanding that [he] step onto the porch.” Serfilippi instructed Conklin to “get off his property.”
“Fear[ing] for his safety,” Serfilippi dialed 911 to request a police supervisor. The supervisor, Sgt. Rentkowicz, arrived and instead of “protecting” him, helped arrest him. Conklin finally put Sefilippi in cuffs.
Conklin argued that Serfilippi jeopardized public safety, interfering with his work directing traffic and with the work of the construction crew. He stated that Serfilippi slammed a door on his finger and injured it. (His written account does not mention the seizure or loss of the cellphone; the city subsequently admitted it couldn’t account for the phone in a legal filing.)
The security video includes efforts by Rentkowicz to defuse the situation when he arrived on the scene.
In a pretrial hearing after jurors went home Thursday evening, Merly, Serfilippi’s attorney, said he is leaning toward shifting his case’s emphasis away from wrongful arrest to malicious prosecution.
Merly also agreed not to invoke the “blue wall of silence,” a phrase that Wolak protested would prejudice the jury, unless the attorneys speak with Judge Meyer first. Meyer commented, “It seems like you could otherwise impeach the witnesses by suggesting self-interest, without invoking an overarching code of silence among all police officers.” But he told Merly he’d hear arguments at sidebar, if the evidence leads in that direction.