Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Highway stop for impaired driving gives rise to false arrest claim

The police pulled over this woman while she was driving on the New York Thruway and given a series of field sobriety tests. The officer determined that plaintiff failed some of the tests, and he brought her into the police station and charged her with driving while ability impaired by drugs. Turns out, plaintiff had not taken any drugs, and the charges were dropped. The false arrest case was dismissed on summary judgment, but plaintiff wins the appeal and the Court of Appeals reinstates the case.

The case is Gatling v. West, a summary order issued on April 6. False arrest cases are difficult because even if the plaintiff was actually not guilty of anything, the police can still show probable cause and have the case dismissed if he reasonably thought the plaintiff was guilty of something. In this case, the officer said plaintiff exhibited impaired speech and impaired motor coordination and though something was wrong with her balance. He also testified that she failed the walk-and-turn test, the one-leg-stand test, and the finger-count test. Plaintiff said she had passed those tests and there was nothing wrong with her that day.

My instinct was that plaintiff would lose this case because officers can show probable cause through their reasonable belief that the plaintiff did something wrong and, and courts often give the police the benefit of the doubt in he-said she-said case. The defendant in the case says the plaintiff's testimony that she did nothing wrong and had passed the sobriety tests was self-serving and subjective. But the Court of Appeals (Bianco, Parker and Lynch) says plaintiff can win the case at trial. The Court reasons:

A jury could rationally credit Gatling’s testimony and conclude that she could determine whether she passed those tests based only on hearing Trooper West’s instructions, especially with tests as basic as standing on one leg and finger-counting. As to Trooper West’s testimony regarding his belief that she passed only two of the tests, upon which the district court relied, we recognize that probable cause may exist even if it is based on mistaken information, as long as the officer acted in reasonable reliance upon that information. See Bernard v. United States, 25 F.3d 98, 102 (2d Cir. 1994). 

However, if Gatling performed the tests exactly as instructed by Trooper West, a rational jury could find that he fabricated her negative test results or, at a minimum, any belief that she failed was not reasonable. Moreover, Gatling notes that, at his deposition, Trooper West was unable to explain which “clues” or factors led him to conclude that she had failed three of the tests, and no such explanation exists in his paperwork. Therefore, viewing the record as a whole, a jury is not required to credit Trooper West’s testimony that he believed that she failed three tests, nor is it required to find that any such belief was reasonable.

Plaintiff also wins the appeal for other reasons. While the officer said she had glassy eyes, he did not note that problem on the DWI Bill of Particulars, so the jury may find this was a post-hoc accusation against plaintiff. While the officer said plaintiff was driving erratically, 

although there was a 911 call regarding erratic driving by a car meeting the general description of Gatling’s Impala (i.e., the color and model), Trooper West’s observations as he followed the car did not corroborate the 911 call; to the contrary, he testified that he followed Gatling’s car for one-half mile and witnessed no erratic driving whatsoever. Moreover, Trooper West’s observation that Gatling was travelling too close to the car in front of her in that she was twenty-five to thirty-five feet behind the car travelling at a rate of fifty to fifty-five m.p.h. – even if true – hardly provides probable cause for charging the driver with driving while impaired by drugs.

The false arrest case therefore goes to trial. Plaintiff's racial discrimination claim, however, will not go to trial. She argued that the officer pulled her over and lied about her sobriety because of her race. But the Court of Appeals, while recognizing that a racial discrimination could proceed under 42 U.S.C. 1981 with the right facts, says the facts are not present here and that plaintiff cannot simply allege racial discrimination "from thin air." Without additional evidence, arresting someone without probable cause does not demonstrate racial animus. She does allege that the Trooper, while driving her to the police station, was playing music in the police car that referred to women in a derogatory manner. But that is not an allegation of racial discrimination, the Court says, and this evidence alone will not prove racial discrimination.

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