United States District Court, S.D. New York
OPINION AND ORDER
EDGARDO RAMOS, U.S.D.J.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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
Id. at 156.
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. 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.
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.
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.