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Murray v. Ruderfer

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 31, 2017

JAMES MURRAY, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW YORK STATE TROOPER DAVID B. RUDERFER, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          EDGARDO RAMOS, U.S.D.J.

         After a three-day, two-witness trial before this Court, a jury rejected Plaintiff James Murray's allegations that New York State Trooper David Ruderfer violated his constitutional rights when, after a traffic stop, the trooper searched his person, his car, and detained him in handcuffs for the duration of the searches. Before the Court are Murray's post-trial motions for (1) entry of judgment as a matter of law, or (2) a new trial, or (3) an order amending the judgment in his favor, all pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b), 59(a) and 59(e), respectively. (Doc. 47). Murray seeks a new trial or judgment in his favor solely on the false arrest claim, on the ground that the trial testimony did not establish that Ruderfer had probable cause to arrest him for the crime of obstruction of governmental administration. For the reasons set forth below, the motions are DENIED.

         BACKGROUND[1]

         On January 9, 2014, Defendant Ruderfer was a New York State Trooper and a K-9 handler stationed at the Highland Barracks in Ulster County, New York. Trial Transcript (“Tr.”) (Doc. 49-1) at 108-09. On that day while on patrol in a marked SUV, Ruderfer pulled over a car being driven by Murray in the Town of Montgomery in Orange County. Tr. at 111. Ruderfer pulled him over because the car had illegally dark window tint on the side windows such that he could not see inside the car. Id. at 111-12. After he pulled him over, Ruderfer walked up to the car and asked Murray for his license and registration. Id. at 113. When Murray opened the window to comply, Ruderfer noticed the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. Id. at 114. Ruderfer returned to his patrol SUV to run a check on Murray's license and then went back to Murray and asked that he exit his car. Id. at 113. When Murray got out of the car, Ruderfer explained that he had detected the odor of burnt marijuana and asked Murray if he could provide an explanation. Id. at 114. Murray stated that he had smoked marijuana approximately 30 days prior.[2] Id. At that point, Ruderfer told Murray that as a result of the smell of marijuana, he would need to search both Murray and the car. Id. at 115.

         Ruderfer searched Murray first, during which Murray was completely compliant. After he searched Murray, Ruderfer instructed him to sit on the back bumper of the car facing the patrol SUV, which was parked behind Murray's car. Id. at 118. Ruderfer explained that it was his custom, when conducting vehicle searches alone, to have the driver sit on the back bumper so that he knows where the driver is at all times as he conducts the search. Id. at 118. By having him sit on the back bumper, Ruderfer can both see the driver through the rear window of the car, and can also feel if the driver has moved because the car will elevate. Id. He further described that he uses this procedure both for his safety and that of the driver:

The thing is when you are searching the vehicle you don't know who you are searching. You don't know what that person is capable of. So everybody that I search, it's the same process. So he sits on the bumper. If there is something in that vehicle, which at this point I have no clue what could be in that vehicle, it's important to me that he's not watching me and he's facing the other way. A lot of times -- and this is not always, but a lot of times when people keep looking over or don't listen to a lawful order at first, there's the probability of something being in that car. And I'm not saying in every situation that's the case, but it does elevate to a probability that there may be something in the car. The majority of people listen to what you tell them to do, and they -- if you tell them to sit on the bumper, the majority of people sit on the bumper and comply to my instructions the first time I have to say it.

Id. at 119.

When you search a vehicle and, like I said previously, you don't know the person you are searching or the vehicle you are searching. I have past experience.[3] If you are searching a vehicle and there is contraband in that vehicle and the person is looking to see if you find it, he may attack you, he may run, he may try to get into his car and drive away. That is the reality of police work. That is what happens. The reason I don't have him look back is for my safety and his own safety because I don't want that to happen.

Id. at 156.

         Ruderfer began conducting a search of the car once Murray was sitting on the back bumper. Id. at 118. Almost immediately, however, Murray stood up, walked along the back of the car to its side by the tail light, and turned to look at Ruderfer. Id. at 119. Ruderfer asked him “politely” to sit back on the bumper, which he did. Id. However, on several subsequent occasions as Ruderfer was searching the car, Murray stood and watched him while pacing. Id. at 120. At one point, Ruderfer believes he may have even said to Murray, “How many times do I have to tell you to sit on the fucking bumper?” Id. at 139. As a result of Murray's repeated refusals to comply with the order to remain seated, Ruderfer told him that he was being detained, placed him in handcuffs, and had him sit in the front passenger seat of the patrol SUV as he completed the search.[4] Id. at 120. Ruderfer testified that at the moment he placed him in handcuffs, he believed that Murray had committed a violation of obstructing governmental administration, which he described as someone intentionally obstructing or impairing him from performing an official law enforcement function, in this case, searching the car. Id. at 129.

         Ruderfer did not find any marijuana or other contraband in the car. When he completed the search of the car, he uncuffed Murray and did not charge him with obstructing governmental administration or issue him a ticket for the window tint. Id.

         PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Murray filed the Complaint just over a year after the incident occurred on February 6, 2015. Doc. 1. In it, he asserted three causes of action: illegal stop; illegal search; and false arrest. Id. at 4-5. The trial took place over three days beginning on April 18, 2016. Only Murray testified in support of his case, and only Ruderfer testified for the defense. After the defense rested, Murray made a partial motion pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a) for judgement as a matter of law related to his claim for false arrest, arguing that there was no testimony that Murray had intimidated, used physical force against, or physically interfered with Ruderfer. Tr. at 176-77. The Court denied the motion. Id. at 180-81. The jury thereafter returned a verdict in favor of the defense on all three causes of action. Doc. 41. The instant motion, seeking relief only with respect to the false arrest claim, was filed on May 20, 2016. Doc. 47.

         STANDARD ...


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