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Cynthia Hudson v. Town of Weare et al.

November 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joseph N. Laplante United States District Judge


This civil rights action arises out of a traffic stop that plaintiff Cynthia Hudson says should never have been made. Hudson contends that while driving home from a friend's house on the night of the stop, she was observing all traffic laws and driving in an unremarkable manner. Nonetheless, she was stopped, and, after submitting to roadside sobriety tests, arrested and charged with driving while impaired---a charge that was later dismissed after her blood tested negative for drugs or alcohol.

Hudson has now filed suit against the officer who stopped and arrested her, his supervisor, the phlebotomist who drew her blood, and the Town of Weare and its police chief, asserting a claims for alleged violations of her Fourth Amendment rights, see 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as common-law claims for battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, and malicious prosecution.*fn1 The defendants have moved for summary judgment, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 56, on all of Hudson's claims.

This court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question) and 1367 (supplemental jurisdiction), and heard oral argument on the defendants' motion on November 15, 2012. As the court discussed at the hearing, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

I. Traffic stop

There is a stark factual dispute in this case: defendant Daniel Aiken, the officer who stopped and arrested Hudson, says that, before stopping her, he observed Hudson driving at 62 miles per hour---in excess of the posted 50 mile-per-hour speed limit---weaving within her lane, drifting out of her lane, and driving onto the shoulder. Hudson, however, steadfastly denies doing any of those things, and says that all she did before Aiken stopped her was slow down as she approached an area where the speed limit dropped to 30 miles per hour, signal a right-hand turn, turn her signal off without turning, and travel another quarter mile down the road before reactivating her signal and turning.

The facts must, of course, be viewed "in the light most favorable to" Hudson for purposes of summary judgment. Estrada v. Rhode Island, 594 F.3d 56, 62 (1st Cir. 2010). Doing so here, the court cannot conclude that Aiken's stop of Hudson was constitutional. "A traffic stop is constitutional if an officer has reasonable suspicion of unlawful conduct involving a motor vehicle or its operation," United States v. Jenkins, 680 F.3d 101, 104 (1st Cir. 2012), i.e., "a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the person stopped of criminal activity, rooted firmly in specific and articulable facts," United States v. Brake, 666 F.3d 800, 804 (1st Cir. 2011). In this case, one could not reasonably draw the conclusion that Hudson was engaged in unlawful activity from the fact that she activated her turn signal and then shut it off shortly thereafter without turning, only to ultimately activate that signal again less than 500 yards later and turn. Indeed, under these circumstances, the presence of reasonable suspicion is not even "arguable." See Eldredge v. Town of Falmouth, 662 F.3d 100, 106 (1st Cir. 2011). Because it has been settled law since the 1970's that a police officer may not initiate an investigatory stop of a motorist without reasonable suspicion, see, e.g., Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663 (1977), Aiken is not entitled to qualified immunity from Hudson's 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim, at least insofar as that claim arises from the traffic stop. Moreover, because the stop was performed "without legal authority," the court cannot grant summary judgment in his favor on Hudson's state-law false arrest claim. See MacKenzie v. Linehan, 158 N.H. 476, 482 (2009) (claim for false arrest lies where defendant unlawfully restrains an individual's personal freedom).*fn2

II. Arrest and prosecution

Summary judgment is granted to defendants on the remaining claims. To the extent that Hudson claims that Aiken violated her constitutional rights by arresting and charging her without probable cause, the undisputed facts support the opposite conclusion. "Probable cause exists when reasonably prudent police officers, under the facts and circumstances, would believe the defendant had committed or was about to commit a crime." United States v. Gonzalez, 609 F.3d 13, 19 (1st Cir. 2010). At the time he arrested Hudson, Aiken had observed several things---undisputed by Hudson--that, in conjunction, justified a belief that she had committed a crime by driving while under the influence of some controlled substance:

* she gave him a Visa debit card instead of her license;

* she was slurring her speech;

* her eyelids were droopy and her pupils constricted;

* while walking to the sobriety test area, her steps were halting and her coordination poor;

* during the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, she "nodded off" and her ...

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