Monday, August 29, 2016

Woman can sue police for DUI arrest gone bad

False arrest cases are hard to win against the police, because courts ask if the police had "arguable probable cause" to arrest, which is part of the qualified immunity equation, asking if the officer had an objectively reasonable basis to make the arrest, even if the guy was not guilty of anything. Despite that built-in protection for police officers, this plaintiff makes out a false arrest claim arising from a highway DUI stop.

The case is Sakoc v. Carlson, a summary order decided on August 24. Carlson pulled over Sakoc because of a defective headlight. Carlson then administered field sobriety tests when he suspected that Sakoc was impaired by alcohol. He also gave her a breath test, which she passed. Sakoc was then taken to the police station, where she passed the blood test for drugs and alcohol. The district court dismissed Sakoc's false arrest case on qualified immunity grounds, ruling that while the officer was mistaken in arresting her, it was objectively reasonable for him to make that mistake. The Court of Appeals (Leval, Droney and Engelmayer [D.J.]) disagrees, making this one of the few cases I've seen in the Second Circuit where a DUI arrest leads to a real false arrest case.

As it happens, the Court says, "Sakoc concedes again that her performance on the field sobriety tests was not perfect, and that she could rightly have been assigned two defects in her performance, also known as 'clues.' She argues, however, that at the time of the arrest no reasonably competent police officer would believe that two clues garnered from field sobriety tests, when considered along with the other evidence she presented, would establish probable cause for arrest." I would think this would be enough for her to lose the appeal. But she wins the appeal.

The Second Circuit reviews the video of the arrest, among other things, and finds that, looking at the evidence from Sakoc's standpoint, no reasonable officer could have found arguable probable cause to arrest Sakoc for a violation of" Vermont law "solely based the video and accompanying audio of the field sobriety tests." Here is how the Court sees it:

The two conceded “clues” were minimal, Sakoc’s performance appeared to be otherwise satisfactory, and all remaining evidence tending to support probable cause was disputed and therefore must be treated on defendant’s motion for summary judgment in the light most favorable to Sakoc. Furthermore, Sakoc proffered evidence that this was Carlson’s first DUI arrest and he was motivated to arrest her so as to satisfy the completion of his field training. While a police officer’s motivation does not invalidate objectively justifiable behavior, in this case, suspect motivations can affect a jury’s appraisal of Carlson’s testimony in support of probable cause. As the district court correctly concluded, Carlson’s other claimed bases for the arrest, including improper operation of the vehicle before the stop, an odor of alcohol, poor performance of the portions of the field sobriety tests that cannot be observed on the video or heard in the audio, slurred speech, and “bombing” the field sobriety tests, are all disputed material facts. Crediting Sakoc’s version of the disputed facts, and evaluating the video and transcript in the light most favorable to her, the jury could conclude that Carlson unreasonably exaggerated the minimal flaws in Sakoc’s performance on the field sobriety tests. A jury evaluating the credibility of this and all other testimony could determine that there was no probable cause for plaintiff’s arrest.
Did you see the part about the police officer's credibility? Normally, the officers' subjective intent plays no role in whether someone was falsely arrested. In this case, Sakoc gets around that rule by arguing that the officer's rush to arrest her was not based on any legal violation but his desire to notch another arrest. You don't see reasoning like that very often.

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