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Esgro v. Serkiz

January 23, 2007

DOMINICK J. ESGRO, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
WILLIAM T. SERKIZ, JOHN MESKRE, AND TOWN OF VESTAL, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thomas J. McAVOY Senior United States District Judge

DECISION and ORDER

Plaintiff commenced the instant action asserting claims of false arrest, violation of his right to be free from unreasonable seizures, and negligence. This matter was tried before the Court on January 3, 2007. The following constitutes the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law.

I. FACTS

In the early morning of March 10, 2005 (approximately 2:30 a.m.), Plaintiff Dominick Esgro was riding his bicycle from Johnson City, New York to Vestal, New York. Defendant Vestal Police Officer William Serkiz observed Plaintiff riding his bicycle on numerous occasions. Serkiz observed that Plaintiff was wearing very dark clothing, did not have reflective gear on his bicycle, and was difficult to see. In the area of African Road, Vestal, New York, Serkiz observed Plaintiff ride his bicycle against traffic, thereby violating the Vehicle and Traffic Law of New York State. Serkiz stopped Plaintiff on Old Vestal Road. Serkiz's car was positioned on the shoulder of the westbound lane of Old Vestal Road.

Plaintiff was positioned on his bicycle adjacent, and perpendicular, to the driver's side of Serkiz's car. Plaintiff was located in the roadway of the westbound lane of Old Vestal Road.

Serkiz asked Plaintiff some routine questions, including where he was coming from, where he was going, whether he had been drinking, etc. Plaintiff responded to Serkiz by "taking the Fifth," apparently referencing the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiff refused to answer Serkiz's questions. Serkiz also asked Plaintiff for identification. Although Plaintiff originally refused to produce identification, within minutes he produced a driver's license. Plaintiff told Serkizs to "write me a ticket and I will be on my way." Plaintiff then informed Serkiz that he wished to file a complaint against him. Serkiz contacted his supervisor, Defendant Vestal Police Sergeant Mestre, and advised that Plaintiff wished to file a complaint. Serkiz then returned to his car to write out traffic tickets.

Within five to ten minutes, Mestre arrived on the scene. Mestre walked over to, and briefly spoke with, Serkiz (who was still in his car writing tickets) and then spoke with Plaintiff. Seeking to determine whether Serkiz had been harassing Plaintiff, Mestre asked Plaintiff whether he had had any prior run-ins with Serkiz. Plaintiff responded that he had not. Plaintiff indicated his displeasure over having been pulled over by other members of the Vestal Police Department ("VPD") on several prior occasions.

The conversation between Mestre and Plaintiff took place in the westbound lane of Old Vestal Road, just to the South of Serkiz's car.*fn1 During the conversation, several westbound cars had to move into the eastbound lane to go around Mestre and Plaintiff. According to Mestre, he directed Plaintiff out of the middle of the road, but Plaintiff refused to move. Mestre claims that, after directing Plaintiff to move from the road several times, he threatened to arrest Plaintiff for "obstruction." Serkiz, who was seated in his car with the windows up, stated that he heard Mestre direct Plaintiff to move out of the middle of the road. Plaintiff denies that he was directed to move out of the middle of the road. Plaintiff agrees, however, that Mestre stated his intention to arrest Plaintiff for "obstruction." Ultimately, Mestre directed Serkiz to arrest Plaintiff.

Serkiz handcuffed Plaintiff, frisked him, searched his backback for weapons and/or contraband, placed Plaintiff in the police car, and transported Plaintiff to the VPD. At the VPD, Plaintiff was initially chained to a rail and placed in a chair. Plaintiff failed to cooperate with efforts to fingerprint, photograph, or otherwise process him. Plaintiff was then placed in a cell. Plaintiff testified that he was informed that the judge could not be located and, therefore, the police offered to let him go on bail. Plaintiff responded that he did not want to pay bail and preferred to wait for the judge. Plaintiff was again advised that the judge was not available. The police then advised Plaintiff that he could go without paying bail. At that point, approximately 4-5 hours after his arrest, Plaintiff was released. Plaintiff ultimately pled guilty to various traffic violations. Plaintiff was never charged with any form of "obstruction."

II. DISCUSSION

a. Fourth Amendment/False Arrest

Plaintiff claims that his arrest and detention by the police was unreasonable and in violation of his right to be free from unreasonable seizures and false arrest. Defendants respond that they had probable cause to stop and arrest Plaintiff.

Police may stop an individual observed to be violating the traffic laws. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 116 S.Ct. 1769 (1996); Holeman v. City of New London, 425 F.3d 184, 189 (2d Cir. 2005). If the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred, the subjective motivations of the police in effectuating the traffic stop are irrelevant. Whren,, 517 U.S. 806. Here, Plaintiff admitted that he violated the traffic laws by, among other things, failing to have a headlamp on his bicycle and cutting against traffic. The credible evidence demonstrated that Defendant Serkiz personally observed Defendant violate the traffic laws. Regardless of Serkiz's subjective motivation, he had ample objective bases upon which to stop Plaintiff for violating the traffic laws. Accordingly, Serkiz was legally authorized to stop Plaintiff. Whren, 517 U.S. 806; United States v. Scopo, 19 F.3d 777, 781-82 (2d Cir. 1994) (police may stop someone whom they have observed commit a traffic violation).

Moreover, although an extreme response, police are authorized to effectuate an arrest without a warrant for a traffic violation. See N.Y. VEH. & TRAF. LAW § 155 ("For purposes of arrest without a warrant, pursuant to article one hundred forty of the criminal procedure law, a traffic infraction shall be deemed an offense."); N.Y. CRIM. PROC. LAW § 140.10(1)(a) (an officer may arrest a person for "[a]ny offense when [the officer] has reasonable cause to believe that such person has committed such offense in [the officer's] presence"); Scopo, 19 F.3d at 781; People v. Van Buren, 4 N.Y.3d 640, 646-47 (2005) ("[A] police officer is generally authorized to arrest an individual for a petty offense, which includes a traffic violation (see Vehicle and Traffic Law § 155), when: (1) there is 'reasonable cause to believe that such person has committed such offense in [the officer's] presence' (CPL 140.10 [1] [a]); (2) '[s]uch offense was committed or believed by [the officer] to have been committed within the geographical area of such officer's employment or within one hundred yards of such geographical area' (CPL 140.10 [2] [a]); and (3) '[s]uch arrest is made in the county which such offense was committed or believed to have been committed or in an adjoining county' (CPL 140.10 [2] [b])."); see also Atwater v Lago Vista, 532 US 318 (2001). Upon stopping Plaintiff for the traffic violation, Defendants were authorized to detain Plaintiff for a reasonable period of time. United States v. Williams, 2004 WL 1609337, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. 2004); see also United States v. Boyce, 351 F.3d 1102, 1106 (11th Cir. 2003) (The stop must not last "any longer than necessary to process the traffic violation unless there is articulable suspicion of other illegal activity."). Specifically, Sertiz was authorized to detain Plaintiff until such time as he could issue the traffic citations. United States v. Gonzalez-Lerma, 14 F.3d 1479, 1483 (10th Cir. 1994) ("An officer conducting a routine traffic stop may request a driver's license and vehicle registration, run a computer check, and issue a citation. After completion of these activities, an officer may detain a driver for reasons unrelated to the initial traffic stop if (1) the officer has an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion that illegal activity has occurred or is occurring, or (2) if the initial detention has become a consensual encounter.") (internal quotations, citations and ...


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