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WHITTON v. WILLIAMS

March 31, 2000

MATTHEW T. WHITTON AND HEATHER TRAIL, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
NEW YORK STATE TROOPER MARLANDO WILLIAMS AND NEW YORK STATE TROOPER JASON ROBLES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William C. Conner, Senior District Judge.

  OPINION AND ORDER

Defendant Jason Robles is a New York State trooper who was found guilty of abridging the Fourth Amendment rights of plaintiff Matthew T. Whitton in a civil trial on June 24, 1999. Robles now moves pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b) for judgment as a matter of law as to Whitton's Fourth Amendment claim of unreasonable search and seizure, or, in the alternative, for a new trial on that claim pursuant to Fed. R.Civ.P. 59(a). For the reasons that follow, the Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law is granted and the Rule 59 motion for a new trial is denied.

BACKGROUND

In February 1998, Whitton (hereinafter, "plaintiff") and Heather Trail*fn1 commenced this action against Robles and fellow state trooper Marlando Williams pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged violations of their Fourth Amendment rights. Plaintiff and Trail claimed, among other things, that Robles and Williams, acting under color of state law, violated their constitutional right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures during a vehicle and traffic stop on August 19, 1995, which resulted in Whitton's arrest for driving while intoxicated (DWI).

A. Whitton's Trial Testimony

Plaintiff testified that on August 18, 1995, he worked until five o'clock, then socialized for two or three hours with friends at the fire house where he was a volunteer. (Trial Tr. at 265.) He stated that he had three beers with his friends, went home to shower, change clothing and eat, and then went to a dance club in nearby Stamford, Connecticut. He stated that while he was there, he drank another two beers. (Id. at 267, 269.)

Plaintiff further testified that he was in custody for about two hours prior to his arrest for DWI. He stated that he was not asked to submit to field sobriety tests such as walking a straight line, reciting the alphabet, or standing on one leg. (Trial Tr. at 289-90.) Plaintiff also testified that defendants did not perform a gaze nystagmus test, stating that at "[v]arious points they had lights in my eyes but never had me follow a pen." (Id. at 291.) He testified that he told the troopers that he had five beers over a ten-hour period. (Id. at 338.) He said that during the trip from the scene of the stop to the barracks, Williams, who was sitting in the passenger seat of the police car while Robles was driving, read plaintiff his rights and told him that he was under arrest. (Id. at 340.)

Plaintiff testified that after the troopers drove him to the police barracks, he submitted to a Breathalyzer test administered by Robles. (Id. at 294.) Plaintiff said he asked Robles if he could see the results, but that request was denied. (Id. at 296.) Before leaving the barracks that evening, plaintiff stated, he signed a DWI bill of particulars which gave the results of the Breathalyzer test. (Id. at 343-44.)

B. Trail's Trial Testimony

Heather Trail testified that she accepted an offer from plaintiff for a ride home at about 2:15 a.m. on August 18, 1995 after the two had spent several hours in a dance club. Trail testified that she saw plaintiff drinking beer at the club, and at the time he offered her a ride home he was able to walk and talk "fine." (Trial Tr. at 73.) Trail said that when they approached a stop sign at the intersection of Westchester and Trinity Avenue in Pound Ridge, New York, plaintiff "put his blinker on to take a left and stopped at the stop sign; looked both ways." (Id. at 78.)

Trail testified that at about 2:45 a.m., they were pulled over by troopers who ordered them at gunpoint to exit the car. (Id. at 85-86.) Trail and Whitton were handcuffed and placed in separate police cars. Trail said that she was questioned for two hours, then taken by car to a supermarket where one of the troopers told her that the alarm was going off in the market. (Id. at 89-92.) Trail stated that the troopers eventually returned her to Whitton's parked Blazer. They asked Trail whether she had been drinking and she said she told them "that I had about four or five drinks." (Id. at 93.) The troopers released her and gave her the keys to Whitton's car, which she drove home. (Id. at 94.)

C. Robles' Trial Testimony

At some point, Robles left the scene of plaintiff's stop and went with the sergeant to the scene of the purported burglary, leaving other troopers with plaintiff. Robles testified that at the scene of the purported burglary, the sergeant told him that if he did not believe Whitton and Trail were involved in the burglary, he could release them. (Trial Tr. at 158.)

However, when Robles returned to the scene of plaintiff's traffic stop, he testified, Trooper Pierce told him that plaintiff had been drinking. (Id. at 158.) Robles then asked plaintiff, who was handcuffed in the back of the patrol vehicle, whether he had been drinking and plaintiff told him he had. (Id.) Robles said he then performed a gaze nystagmus test on plaintiff and found plaintiff was intoxicated. (Id. at 203.) Robles testified that in the nine months of service he had at the time of plaintiff's arrest, he had performed the gaze nystagmus test about thirty times, with about half of those tests having been performed on detainees and half on volunteers for training purposes. (Id. at 214-15.) Robles said that further sobriety tests on plaintiff were unnecessary and he feared that plaintiff could hurt himself in the course of performing additional tests. (Id. at 229.)

D. Williams' Trial Testimony

Williams testified that while he was approaching a vehicle he and Robles had stopped, Robles told him that he saw a black Chevy Blazer and "indicated to me that he thought that was them or further people that were involved [in the purported burglary] and I told him to pursue, go ahead and stop the vehicle." (Trial Tr. at 398.) Williams stated that the Blazer "came up rather quickly to the stop sign. It braked, it moved to the intersection, stopped again and then turned left and went northbound on Westchester Avenue." (Id. at 398.) Williams stated that the Blazer did not brake at the stop sign, but in the intersection. (Id. at 399.) However, Williams said he did not cite plaintiff for that alleged violation, nor was it written on the DWI bill of particulars, which includes a space to list potential traffic offenses. (Id. at 419-20.)

Williams stated that after they stopped plaintiff he smelled alcohol on plaintiff and asked plaintiff whether he had been drinking. Williams testified that plaintiff told him he had drunk five beers, (id. at 408), and that he did not ask plaintiff over what period of time he consumed those beers. (Id. at 427.) Williams said that he was the arresting officer and that he arrested plaintiff based on the following factors:

It was the strong odor of alcoholic beverage on his person. The fact that he was driving a vehicle in an erratic way, and as far[] as I'm concerned, through a stop sign, made a quick left like he was trying to evade the police. Also confirmed with Trooper Robles and Trooper Pierce the[ir] determination as well concurred with mine and I made the final decision to place him under arrest for driving while intoxicated.

(Id. at 409.)

Williams said that he and Robles took plaintiff to the police barracks where Williams watched Robles administer a Breathalyzer test. Williams said that plaintiff "met the legal requirements and exceeded it, the test, he failed it." (Id. at 412.)

E. Pierce's Trial Testimony

Trooper Pierce assisted defendants with their stop of plaintiff. Pierce testified that plaintiff "had a strong odor of alcoholic beverage on his breath" and that "he was having trouble maintaining his balance." (Trial Tr. at 449.) Pierce stated that he performed a gaze nystagmus test on plaintiff and determined from the test results that plaintiff was intoxicated. (See id. at 459.) Pierce said that of six "clues" for which the test is designed to ...


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