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Michael Wagner, Levi Ingersoll Ken Fenwick and Sidney Alpaugh v. David J. Swarts et al

November 17, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gary L. Sharpe District Court Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiffs Michael Wagner, Levi Ingersoll, Ken Fenwick and Sidney Alpaugh commenced this action against defendants,*fn1 asserting claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 for violations of their constitutional rights in conjunction with defendants' implementation and execution of motorcycle checkpoints. (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1.) Pending are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment and plaintiffs' motion for class certification. (See Dkt. Nos. 61, 64.) For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted, and plaintiffs' motions are denied.

II. Background*fn2

In 2008, the New York State Police implemented a Statewide Motorcycle Enforcement and Education Initiative ("Initiative") to address the "alarming increase in motorcycle crashes . . . over the past decade," and the escalating "number of motorcycles traveling New York's roadways." (Defs.' Statement of Material Facts ("SMF") ¶ 1, Dkt. No. 61, Attach. 1.) In addition to a public information/education element, the Initiative called for motorcycle checkpoints, "a novel concept in New York as well as nationally," to reduce the number of motorcycle crashes and increase vehicle and traffic law compliance. (See id. ¶¶ 2-4.) According to defendants,*fn3 the primary objective of the checkpoints was "to detect motorcycle safety violations and insure [sic] proper registration and operator compliance with New York State's motorcycle license requirements." (See, e.g, id. ¶ 6.)*fn4

1. Creation of the Initiative

As part of his Master's course work at the State University of New York at Albany, defendant Lt. James Halversen, the commanding officer of the New York State Police Motorcycle Unit, wrote a thesis on the increasing rate of motorcycle fatalities for riders over forty-years old. (See Dkt. No. 61, Attach. 14 ¶ 25.) In so doing, he considered measures-such as routine commercial trucking inspections and the automobile seatbelt checkpoints-that the State Police could adopt to "curb the increase in all motorcycle crashes and fatalities" in New York. (Id. ¶ 26.) Based on his research,*fn5 and his experience as a "motorcycle enthusiast," Halversen developed the idea for motorcycle safety checkpoints. (Id. ¶¶ 25-27.) Upon his return to duty, he set out to implement this plan. (Id.)

With the help of defendant Lt. Daniel Larkin, Halversen submitted a grant application to the GTSC in 2007 to fund the checkpoints. (Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 84, 88, Dkt. No. 64, Attach. 4.) The GTSC, which is chaired by defendant David J. Swarts, approved the application and funded the Initiative with federal grant money "provided by NHTSA and [Federal Highway Administration ("FHA")]." (Dkt. No. 61, Attach. 3 ¶¶ 5-6.) Although Swarts oversaw the funding of the Initiative, neither he, nor any member of the GTSC staff, participated in any of the checkpoints. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.)

The pilot checkpoint was conducted on I-84 in Duchess County on October 7, 2007, the same day a "large motorcycle event was being held 20 miles to the east," in Connecticut. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 46-48.) Portable highway message signs instructed all motorcycle riders to "exit ahead," and a marked state police vehicle, with its emergency lights on, was stationed at the entrance to the rest area; a trooper standing outside the vehicle waved "all oncoming motorcycles into the rest area." (Id. ¶¶ 49-51.) Once inside, the motorcyclists were directed to an inspection area where members of the Motorcycle Unit inspected both the bikes and the riders. (Id. ¶ 52.) Violations were noted on a checklist and then passed to a State Police Trooper, who in turn issued any applicable traffic citations. (Id. ¶ 53.) In total, 280 motorcycles passed through the pilot checkpoint, 225 were inspected for safety violations, and 104 traffic tickets were issued, of which illegal helmets was the most common with 41 infractions. (Id. ¶ 55.)

2. The Motorcycle Checkpoints

Halversen's initial plan ("Plan 1") called for "full-blown inspections" of every motorcycle that entered the checkpoint. (See Dkt. No. 64, Attach. 3 ¶ 56.) This plan, which mirrored the configuration of the pilot checkpoint, was memorialized in the New York State Police 2008 Guidelines for the Operation of Motorcycle Enforcement Checkpoints. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 56-57; see also Dkt. No. 61, Attach. 26.) These guidelines outlined the planning and execution of the motorcycle checkpoints, including: location and date selection*fn6 ; discussion points for pre-checkpoint briefings; safety considerations*fn7 ; and even how to distinguish illegal "novelty" helmets from Department of Transportation ("DOT") compliant helmets*fn8 . (See Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 58-66; see also Dkt. No. 61, Attach. 26.) However, Plan 1 was short-lived as the troopers conducting the initial checkpoints were "overwhelmed," and a "significant number of motorcycles were waved past . . . to avoid traffic backups and concomitant safety concerns." (Defs.' SMF ¶ 67.)

In its place, the State Police "adopted a second methodology" ("Plan 2"), which enabled them to conduct checkpoints "where heavy volumes of traffic were anticipated." (Id. ¶ 68.) The major difference between Plans 1 and 2 was that Plan 2 utilized an officer at the "point"- the entrance of the checkpoint-who was responsible for quickly screening each passing motorcyclist for helmet compliance, and each motorcycle for obvious equipment violations. (Id. ¶ 70.) Halversen explained the "point" process as follows:

If a violation was observed, or there was reasonable cause for the point officer to suspect a violation, the motorcyclist was directed into the inspection area for a thorough inspection. Conversely, if no apparent or probable violation*fn9 was observed, the motorcyclist was waved past the checkpoint and back onto the highway without stopping, and in most cases, without having to put his or her foot on the pavement.

(See Dkt. No. 61, Attach. 14 ¶ 37.) Although incorporated into the 2009 New York State Police Guidelines for the Operation of Motorcycle Enforcement Checkpoints, plaintiffs dispute that Plan 2 was used at the checkpoints at which they were stopped. (See Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 71-73; Dkt. No. 64, Attach. 3 ¶¶ 71-72.)

In sum, 17 motorcycle checkpoints were conducted in 2008; 5,342 vehicles passed "through the check," 2,278 were inspected and 1,064 tickets were issued. (Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 140, 145-46.) Of the 1,064 tickets issued, 600 were for non-safety related violations, 365 were for helmet violations and 99 were for other safety violations. (Id.) The checkpoints also resulted in 4 criminal arrests. (Id.) Moreover, the Initiative "significantly increased the number of tickets issued for illegal helmets" from 35 in 2007 to 796 in 2008, a 2,175% increase, and further contributed to a 17% decrease in motorcycle fatalities from 2008 to 2009. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 141-42.)

With respect to the checkpoints plaintiffs encountered on June 13 and June 20, 2008, 1,319 motorcycles were screened by the point, resulting in 171 illegal helmet citations, 17 illegal exhaust citations, 24 citations for "other safety-related VTL violations" and 56 citations for "other VTL violations." (See id. ¶¶ 143, 145.)

3. The Underlying Motorcycle Stops

On June 13, 2008, plaintiff Sidney Alpaugh departed his Pennsylvania home on his motorcycle for Port Dover, Canada, to attend the Friday the Thirteenth motorcycle rally. (Pls.' SMF ¶ 10-11.) En route, he encountered a motorcycle checkpoint which was set up on an exit ramp off I-190 near the Peace Bridge Point of Entry. (Id. ¶ 15; Defs.' SMF ¶ 84.) As he drove down the exit ramp, Alpaugh noticed that "all motorcycles were being directed to the right while all cars and trucks were being permitted to proceed." (Pls.' SMF ¶ 15.) When he "approached an officer standing in the middle of the road," the officer directed him into the inspection area that was staged in an adjoining park. (Pls.' SMF ¶ 16; Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 85-87.) Once inside the inspection area, which was surrounded by police cars and officers equipped with "riot gear," Alpaugh was instructed to dismount and remove his helmet. (Pls.' SMF ¶ 17; Defs.' SMF ¶ 87.) A trooper took his insurance, registration and license back to a patrol car for processing, and when the trooper returned, Alpaugh was issued a ticket for wearing an unapproved helmet. (Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 88-89.) Although he now claims that he was detained for 45 minutes, and that he only pled to the helmet infraction to save money, Alpaugh initially claimed the stop lasted 20-30 minutes. (Pls.' SMF ¶¶ 20, 28; Defs.' SMF ¶ 91.)

Like Alpaugh, plaintiffs Levi Ingersoll, Ken Fenwick and Michael Wagner were also stopped at a motorcycle checkpoint, albeit one week later on June 20, 2008, in conjunction with their trips to the "Harley Rendezvous." (See Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 93-122.) All three admitted they saw a sign which read "All Motorcycles Exit"; that they were directed into the inspection area by an officer standing in the middle of the road; and each was eventually ticketed for-and plead guilty to-wearing an unlawful helmet. (See id.) Moreover, Ingersoll and Fenwick both stated they were detained for no more than 30 minutes at the checkpoint. (See Defs.' SMF ¶¶ 98, 112.)

As a result of being stopped at the motorcycle checkpoints, plaintiffs now seek both compensatory and punitive damages, declarative and injunctiverelief, and an award of costs and attorney's fees, for alleged violations of their constitutional rights. (See Compl. ¶ 1, Dkt. No.1.)

III. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247 (1986); Roe v. City of Waterbury, 542 F.3d 31, 35 (2d Cir. 2008). When evaluating the material facts, the court "construes all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all inferences and resolving all ambiguities in [its] favor." Amore v. Novarro, 624 F.3d 522, 529 (2d Cir. 2010). Thus, the movant must demonstrate the absence of genuine issues of material fact, Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Thomas v. Roach, 165 F.3d 137, 142 (2d Cir. 1999), a burden it can meet "if [it] can point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim," Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Found., 51 F.3d 14, 18 (2d Cir. 1995).

If the movant satisfies its burden, the nonmoving party must offer specific evidence showing that a genuine issue of material fact warrants a trial. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. "A 'genuine' dispute over a material fact only arises if the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Dister v. Cont'l Group, Inc., 859 F.2d 1108, 1114 (2d Cir. 1988) (citation omitted). Moreover, material disputes must be based on specific facts as reflected in the adverse party's response, by affidavits or as otherwise authorized by Rule 56, see St. Pierre v. Dyer, 208 F.3d 394, 404 (2d Cir. 2000), and affidavits must be based on personal knowledge, see Harriscom Svenska, AB v. Harris Corp., 3 F.3d 576, 581 (2d Cir. 1993). The bald assertion of some alleged factual dispute will not defeat a properly supported motion. See Rexnord Holdings, Inc. v. Bidermann, 21 F.3d 522, 525 (2d Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). "Conclusory allegations, conjecture, and speculation . . . are insufficient to create a genuine issue of fact." Kerzer v. Kingly Mfg., 156 F.3d 396, 400 (2d Cir. 1998). Naturally, reasonable inferences may defeat a summary judgment motion, but only when they are supported by affirmative facts and relevant, admissible evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(4); Spinelli v. City of New York, 579 F.3d 160, 166-67 (2d Cir. 2009). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

IV. Discussion

It is axiomatic that the motorcycle checkpoints here constitute seizures "within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment." See City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 40 (2004). However, merely implicating the Fourth Amendment is insufficient as only unreasonable seizures run afoul of it. See, e.g., Ill. v. Lidster, 540 U.S. 419, 426 (2004). While the constitutionality of the motorcycle checkpoints is ...

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