ITHACA, N.Y. — During the second day of the Brown v. Hoffman trial on Wednesday, witnesses described the altercation they saw eight years ago in the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport that led to Angela Brown’s arrest.
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What is the case about?
Brown, who lived in Ithaca but has since moved to Florida, claims in her lawsuit that Gerald Hoffman, a retired Tompkins County Sheriff’s deputy, falsely arrested her for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Akira, the then 14-year-old daughter of Angela Brown, lived with her grandparents in North Carolina and, on June 9, 2007, was flying to Ithaca to visit Brown. Akira planned to fly to Philadelphia where she would catch a connecting flight to Ithaca. When Brown saw the flight arrive in Ithaca without her daughter, she became distressed and went to speak with US Airways customer service agents, fearing that her daughter was in danger.
Brown said that despite her terror, she was calm and polite while asking for her daughter’s whereabouts. She said that Hoffman unnecessarily arrested her and injured her in the process. “I know my rights,” she testified, “and I don’t understand how they could be blatantly violated when I was just trying to get my daughter.”
Akira landed in Ithaca three hours after her scheduled arrival time, shortly after Brown had been released from the Sheriff’s Department and had made her way to the airport.
5 witnesses called for the defense
On Wednesday, Hoffman’s defense attorney, William Troy, summoned five witnesses to the stand, and all five told narratives that differed from Brown’s version. The witnesses’ description of the incident, however, were not all identical.
Welch said that, in fact, because Akira was a minor, she should have only been permitted by US Airways to board direct flights. “According to the regulations, if a 14-year-old presented herself to me and had a connecting flight, I would not allow her to fly.”
Upon hearing that her daughter’s plane had been diverted, Welch said that Brown “got very upset right away. She started saying ‘no, no, no,’ and started backing up away from me.”
Brown was then approached by Melissa Abbott, who was also working as a customer service agent for US Airways at the time. Abbott said that Brown repeatedly asked for help locating her daughter. Glenn Feller, a Transportation Security Administration agent, said he heard a loud disagreement between Brown and Abbott and used his radio to send Deputy Hoffman to the service desk.
‘I know my rights, you can’t arrest me’
Abbott said that once Brown raised her voice, “Hoffman warned her twice that she needed to move away from the counter, then he took her by the elbow and tried to move her.”
Brown’s testimony varies slightly: “Hoffman said if I didn’t stop saying, ‘I need to find my daughter,’ I would have to leave the airport. I wasn’t used to being handled in that manner.”
Abbott said that Brown refused Hoffman’s request to leave the airport and resisted his grip on her arm. “Next thing you know, she started twisting and then kicking him in the shins. She knocked over suitcases . . . and was continuously kicking him and screaming, ‘I know my rights, you can’t arrest me!’”
Bryan Grider, a taxi driver who was picking up lost baggage at the airport that day, told a similar story. “She was twisting, pulling away, and screaming that she had a lawyer and that everyone was going to be sorry.”
What’s not disputed: Deputy and TSA agent arrest Brown
Brown has denied both Abbott and Grider’s claims multiple times during trial.
While accounts differ on how Brown got there and what, if anything, she said, Brown and all witnesses agree that she was pressed against a planter and handcuffed by Hoffman with the aid of the TSA agent, Feller.
“I saw Deputy Hoffman grab the young lady [Brown] and turn her around. Deputy Hoffman had her against that half-wall,” Feller said, referring to a 3-foot tall planter that separates the check-in and security areas. “I’m not exactly sure what he was trying to do, but I know he had his hands full trying to deal with her. He had her slightly bent over the counter, putting his weight against her.”
Brown said that five days after the arrest, she went to Cayuga Medical Center and was told that she had incurred a cervical strain, wrist sprain, and leg contusion. She also testified that she suffered psychological damage. “I have lost sleep. I have lost a lot of trust. I know I was a different person for quite a few months.”
At the time, Brown was a case manager for Challenge Employment, an Ithaca company that connects disabled people with employers.
Tracy Decker, who supervised Brown, said, “I absolutely saw signs of her being traumatized after this event. She seemed jumpy and more nervous than normal.”
The defense did not dispute these claims, and instead focused on the circumstances that led up to the arrest.
‘I couldn’t identify her’
Not all witness accounts of the event were congruent. Feller’s testimony, for example, contradicted Abbott’s statement that Brown kicked over bags and cut in front of “a number of passengers in line.” Feller said he didn’t see any customers or suitcases. “Everyone was already through security and the luggage was already screened.”
Multiple witnesses acknowledged the difficulty of recalling an altercation that occurred eight years ago. Of the five witnesses, only Abbott said she could positively identify the plaintiff as the same woman from the airport.
“I couldn’t identify her,” said Feller. “It’s been a long time.”
Brown’s attorney, Edward Kopko, will finish his cross-examination of Hoffman this morning, after which both attorneys are expected to make closing arguments. Six members of the jury will then deliberate and determine a verdict.
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