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Lawyer v. Cota

United States District Court, D. Vermont

April 3, 2018

RYAN LAWYER, Plaintiff,
v.
DREW COTA, BEN PATNODE, and DEREK ROLANDINI, in their individual capacities as Troopers for the Vermont State Police, Defendants.

          DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR CLARIFICATION AND RECONSIDERATION (DOC. 27)

          GEOFFREY W. CRAWFORD, CHIEF JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT

         This malicious prosecution case returns to court on defendants' motion for clarification and reconsideration (Doc. 27) following issuance of a decision by the Honorable J. Garvan Murtha. (Doc. 26.) Judge Murtha has taken inactive status and the case has been reassigned to the undersigned.

         In his ruling, Judge Murtha denied the motion with respect to Count One (false arrest) with respect to all thee defendants. He dismissed Count Two (failure to adequately investigate). He denied the motion to dismiss with respect to Count Three (malicious prosecution) against all three defendants. He permitted Count Four (abuse of process), Count Five (deprivation of liberty in violation of due process), and the state law claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress to proceed against defendant Drew Cota only because Trooper Cota signed the affidavit of probable cause.

         The defendants bring this motion for clarification and reconsideration pursuant to Local Rule 7(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b), which states that "the court may relieve a party . . . from a final judgment, order, or proceeding." The Second Circuit has held that "[t]he standard for granting such a motion is strict, and reconsideration will generally be denied unless the moving party can point to controlling decisions or data that the Court overlooked-matters, in other words, that might reasonably be expected to alter the conclusion reached by the court." Shrader v. CSX Tramp., Inc., 70 F.3d 255, 257 (2d Cir. 1995).

         FACTS

         On a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true the allegations of the complaint, which are as follows. On June 27, 2014, plaintiff Ryan Lawyer was the passenger in an automobile stopped by defendant Drew Cota, a Vermont State Trooper, on suspicion of DUI. Am. Compl. ¶ 8. Lawyer was intoxicated. Id. ¶ 9. Despite orders from Trooper Cota to remain in the car, Lawyer got out three times. Id. ¶ 10. He was arrested for impeding a police officer and disorderly conduct. See 13 V.S.A. §§ 3001 and 1026.

         Lawyer was transported to the St. Albans Vermont State Police barracks and placed in a holding cell. Am. Compl. ¶ 12. He was seated on a bench and handcuffed to the wall. Defendant Derek Rolandini, also a Vermont State Trooper, entered the cell and found Lawyer lying down on the bench. One of his shoes was off, and approximately 100 bags of heroin lay scattered on the floor. Id. ¶ 19.

         Defendant Rolandini left the cell and returned with defendants Cota and Ben Patnode (also a Vermont State Trooper). The three troopers roused Lawyer and questioned him about the heroin. Id. ¶ 20. Lawyer was still intoxicated and had been recently awakened. His response was "unintelligible." Id. The troopers increased the charges against Lawyer to include felony possession of heroin. Id. ¶ 21. They contacted the Vermont Superior Court, Franklin District Division, which set felony bail at $10, 000. Id. This was an increase from the initial bail amount of$500. Id¶26.

         Lawyer was arraigned on June 30, 2014, and held until July 1, 2014, when family members posted a bail bond. Id. ¶ 21.

         The holding cell was equipped with video recording equipment. Id. ¶ 13. The video of Lawyer's detention shows that the heroin did not belong to him. In the video, he is seen using his foot to dislodge an object from the sink located in his cell. Id. ¶ 15. The object then split open, spilling bags of heroin across the floor. Lawyer subsequently lost interest and fell asleep. Id. ¶ 18. A little later, defendant Rolandini entered the cell and observed the heroin. Id. ¶ 19.

         The State dismissed the heroin charge on July 10, 2014. Id. ¶ 28.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff seeks reconsideration on qualified immunity. Judge Murtha did not extend qualified immunity to the federal constitutional counts of malicious prosecution or to the abuse of process and due process claims as they relate to defendant Cota. He also did not extend it to the state law claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

         In reviewing Judge Murtha's decision and the pleadings, the court concludes that qualified immunity should have resulted in the dismissal of all five counts under federal law and, through the state law analog, to the IIED claim as well. This case presents a striking instance of a good-faith mistake by police officers based on the information available to them at the time. That further review of the videotape exonerated the defendant does not alter the facts as alleged. These are that the troopers locked plaintiff in his cell and returned after a short ...


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