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Teague v. Christian

United States District Court, D. Utah

September 25, 2019

RUSSEL TEAGUE, Plaintiff,
v.
OFFICER BURK CHRISTIAN and CITY OF ST. GEORGE, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER:GRANTING [20] DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; ANDDENYING [21] DEFENDANTS’ MOTION FOR SANCTIONS

          David Nuffer District Judge

         Defendants Officer Burk Christian (“Officer Christian”) and the City of St. George (“the City”) (collectively “Defendants”) move for summary judgment (“Motion for Summary Judgment”)[1] on all three causes of action contained in Plaintiff Russel Teague’s (“Plaintiff”) Complaint.[2] Plaintiff opposes the motion, [3] and Defendants have replied[4] in support. In conjunction with filing the Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendants also filed the Rule 11 Motion for Sanctions (“Motion for Sanctions”).[5] Plaintiff opposes[6] that motion and Defendants have replied[7] in support of it.

         Plaintiff’s first two causes of action are brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Here, no reasonable finder of fact could conclude from the undisputed facts that Defendants violated Plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Summary judgment is appropriate for Defendants on the first two causes of action of Plaintiff’s Complaint. Summary Judgment for Defendants is also appropriate on Plaintiff’s third cause of action for injunctive relief.

         And although it is not the subject of the Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiff’s Complaint also contains a claim for class certification. Because Plaintiff’s causes of action fail, Plaintiff’s class certification is moot. For the reasons stated in the following memorandum decision, the Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         Finally, the circumstances here make it difficult to conclude that Plaintiff’s counsel should be subject to sanctions under Fed. R. Civ. P. 11. Defendants’ Motion for Sanctions is DENIED.

         Contents

         STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED FACTS ................................................................................... 2

         STANDARD OF REVIEW .......................................................................................................... 10

         DISCUSSION ............................................................................................................................... 11

         Plaintiff’s First Cause of Action Fails Because Officer Christian had Probable Cause to Arrest Plaintiff ...................................................................................................... 12

         Because Officer Christian Had Probable Cause to Arrest Plaintiff, Plaintiff’s Cause of Action for Malicious Prosecution Also Fails ........................................................ 16

         Because Plaintiff Cannot Prevail on His § 1983 Causes of Action, He Cannot Seek Injunctive Relief and His Class Certification is Moot. . ........................................ 17

         Plaintiff’s Counsel Will Not Be Sanctioned at This Time ................................................ 17

         ORDER ......................................................................................................................................... 19

         STATEMENT OF UNDISPUTED FACTS[8]

         1. On March 25, 2016, Plaintiff Russel Teague was arrested by St. George Police Officer Burkeley Christian for operating under the influence, pursuant to Utah Code § 41-6a- 502. Officer Stan Thompson and Officer Joseph Watson, who also work for the St. George Police Department, were also present.[9]

         2. At or around 11:48 am on the above date, Plaintiff rear-ended a vehicle driven by Donna Mae Sires. Plaintiff hit Ms. Sires when she was stopped at a red light at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Dixie Downs Road in St. George, Utah.[10]

         3. Ms. Sires and Plaintiff got out of their vehicles, and Plaintiff approached her, swaying as he walked as if he were intoxicated.[11]

         4. The police reached the scene of the accident shortly thereafter. Upon arrival, Officer Christian and Officer Thompson observed that Plaintiff and his vehicle matched the description of a male who witnesses reported was driving intoxicated and recklessly and who was involved in a hit-and-run earlier that same day.[12]

         5. When Plaintiff rear-ended Ms. Sires, he was driving a white 1994 Chevrolet K1500 pickup truck. Plaintiff is a white male with white hair, and he was wearing a blue shirt and had sunglasses on his person.[13]

         6. Moments before the accident, the police dispatcher advised Officer Thompson that a reckless driver in an older white Chevrolet truck had been reported on Sunset Boulevard. Officer Thompson was attempting to locate the suspect vehicle when dispatch informed him that it had just been involved in an accident near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Dixie Downs Drive.[14]

         7. Approximately 42 minutes before the accident, at 11:06 am, dispatch advised Officer Christian that a hit-and-run had been reported at Albertson’s Sav-On Pharmacy on 745 N. Dixie Drive in St. George, Utah, which was about 0.2 miles from where Plaintiff rear-ended Ms. Sires (“the rear-end collision”).[15] Dispatch provided Officer Christian with the following details:

a. A witness reported that a male had fallen asleep in his vehicle while he was parked in the pharmacy drive-through. The male woke up after approximately five minutes, at which point he accelerated, hit another vehicle, and then drove away on Sunset Boulevard.[16]
b. The witness described the suspect as a white male with white hair who was wearing a blue shirt and sunglasses. As stated above, Plaintiff matched this description exactly.[17]
c. The witness described the suspect’s vehicle as a white Chevrolet pickup truck, which is what Plaintiff was driving.[18]
d. The witness also provided the truck’s license plate number, which returned as being registered to Plaintiff.[19]

         8. Dispatch also informed Officer Thompson of the hit-and-run after he arrived at the scene of the rear-end collision but before Officer Christian arrested Plaintiff.[20]

         9. Dispatch also advised Officer Christian and Officer Thompson that it received a complaint earlier in the day of a male matching Plaintiff’s description who was acting intoxicated at a Harmons grocery store in Ivins, Utah. The male left in a white Chevrolet pickup truck with a license plate registered to Plaintiff.[21]

         10. Officer Watson, Officer Thompson, and Officer Christian arrived at the scene of the rear-end collision between Plaintiff and Ms. Sires, in that order.[22]

         11. When Officer Thompson arrived, he made contact with Plaintiff, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of his truck. Plaintiff appeared very lethargic and his speech was slow and interrupted by long pauses. When Officer Thompson asked him for his driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, Plaintiff laid his head back and closed his eyes as if he were resting. Officer Thompson asked him again for his documents, and Plaintiff retrieved them. Officer Thompson then noticed that the bottom of a brown glass bottle was sticking out from under the seat, which he believed to be a beer bottle.[23]

         12. Plaintiff exited his vehicle and handed Officer Thompson several papers along with his driver’s license. Plaintiff appeared to have a difficult time keeping his balance as he stood in the roadway, and he repeatedly swayed back and forth and closed his eyes.[24]

         13. Officer Christian asked Plaintiff if he was injured during the accident, and Plaintiff replied that he was not. Plaintiff also had no obvious signs of injury.[25]

         14. Officer Thompson and Officer Christian escorted Plaintiff to the sidewalk by a gas station because it was hazardous for them to remain in the road. While he was walking, Plaintiff was staggering from front to back and almost fell over.[26]

         15. Officer Christian continued talking to Plaintiff on the sidewalk, and Plaintiff admitted he rear-ended Ms. Sires.[27]

         16. Officer Christian did not detect the odor of alcohol on Plaintiff’s breath and he was not slurring his words, but more than once he closed his eyes and began to fall over. As Plaintiff continued to explain the accident, he rocked back and forth on his heels, almost falling backwards. Officer Christian had to steady Plaintiff several times to prevent him from falling.[28]

         17. Based upon Officer Christian’s observations of Plaintiff’s behavior, and his training and experience, he believed that Plaintiff was under the influence of a narcotic or other drug. Not only was Plaintiff unsteady on his feet and nearly fell over multiple times, but Plaintiff and his vehicle matched the description of a hit-and-run and drunk driving suspect.[29]

         18. Officer Christian informed Plaintiff he was not free to leave and read him his Miranda Rights. Plaintiff stated that he understood his rights and agreed to answer Officer Christian’s questions.[30]

         19. Plaintiff denied consuming alcohol but stated that he takes Ambien, which Officer Christian knew to be a sedative used to treat insomnia. Plaintiff denied taking any Ambien that day, but he advised that he took his normal 600mg dose of Gabapentin that morning, which he explained is for nerve damage.[31]

         20. Officer Christian then informed Plaintiff that he wanted to administer field sobriety tests. Officer Christian was and remains certified to conduct field sobriety tests, including the horizontal gaze nystagmus (“HGN”) test, the walk-and-turn test, and the one-leg stand test.[32]

         21. Prior to beginning the first test, Plaintiff was rocking back and forth like he was off balance, and he closed his eyes.[33]

         22. The first test that Officer Christian administered was the HGN test. He explained the test to Plaintiff and asked him if he had any head injuries, vision problems, or medical problems. Plaintiff replied that he did not, except that he had surgery on a disc in his back over a year ago.[34]

         23. The HGN test revealed signs indicative of intoxication. There are six “clues” for HGN, three for each eye: Lack of smooth tracking, sustained nystagmus at maximum deviation, and nystagmus prior to 45 degrees.50 Both of Plaintiff’s eyes jumped and skipped while following Officer Christian’s finger, and both eyes showed each type of horizontal nystagmus. Accordingly, Plaintiff exhibited all six signs of HGN.[35]

         24. Officer Christian repeated each component of the test with the same results.[36]

         25. After the test was finished, Plaintiff swayed forward and back approximately a foot to the front and a foot to the back. Officer Christian and Officer Watson had to steady him to prevent him from falling.[37]

         26. Officer Christian then escorted Plaintiff to a painted line outside of the gas station to do the walk-and-turn test. The line was straight, and the ground was hard, flat, and smooth.[38]

         27. Plaintiff swayed back and forth while leaning back slightly as he was walking over to the line, and Officer Christian had to hang on to his shoulders to guide him to the line.[39]

         28. Plaintiff had difficulty following Officer Christian’s instructions for the test. Plaintiff started the test without being asked to, despite explicit directions to the contrary, and Plaintiff could not get into the “starting position” as instructed. He lost his balance while attempting to do so, swaying left and right and throwing his arms up to regain his balance. Officer Christian gave him another opportunity to get into the starting position, but Plaintiff was unable to and needed to be steadied by Officer Christian to prevent him from falling. Officer Christian then stopped the test because he felt it was unsafe for Plaintiff to continue.[40]

         29. Based upon Officer Christian’s training and experience, Plaintiff’s inability to follow instructions and his lack of coordination were signs of intoxication.[41]

         30. The third test that Officer Christian administered was the one-leg stand test. While Officer Christian was demonstrating the test, Plaintiff raised his leg and started attempting the test despite explicit instructions to not start until the demonstration was over. Plaintiff then lost his balance and had to put his foot down. Officer Christian asked Plaintiff to return to the starting position, and Plaintiff complied but almost fell backwards. Officer Christian then discontinued the test for Plaintiff’s safety.[42]

         31. Based on Officer Christian’s training and experience, Plaintiff’s inability to follow his instructions and his loss of balance – particularly when he had both feet on the ground while in the starting position, were indications of intoxication.[43]

         32. Officer Christian asked Plaintiff to blow into a Portable Breath Test, which indicated his blood alcohol concentration was .000.[44]

         33. Although Plaintiff’s BAC was .000, Officer Christian believed he was under the influence of his medication or another drug because he failed all of the other field sobriety tests. Officer Christian therefore arrested Plaintiff and transported him to the Washington County Correctional Facility.[45]

         34. Plaintiff gave his consent for a blood draw, which occurred at a hospital. Two certified phlebotomists were unable to draw any blood, but Plaintiff consented to a urine sample, which was taken.[46]

         35. On April 7, 2016, less than two weeks after Plaintiff was arrested, the City of St. George filed an information charging Plaintiff with operating under the influence of alcohol and or drugs[47] and a traffic infraction.[48]

         36. The urine sample was sent to the Utah Department of Health, Bureau of Forensic Toxicology where it was analyzed for certain prescription drugs. The analysis was completed on June 3, 2016 and was negative.[49]

         37. At the time the urine sample was analyzed, there was no test that could detect Gabapentin in blood or urine. Additionally, the test utilized by the Bureau of Forensic Toxicology would only return positive for Ambien if levels above a therapeutic dose were present in the blood or urine sample. In any event, urine is a less accurate medium than blood when determining intoxication, and if an individual had recently ingested medication, it might not show up in their urine.[50]

         38. On July 27, 2016, the driving under the influence charge against Plaintiff was dismissed.[51]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary judgment is appropriate if “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[52] A factual dispute is genuine when “there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way.”[53] In determining whether there is a genuine dispute as to material fact, the court should “view the factual record and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom most favorably to the nonmovant.”[54] The moving party “bears the ...


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