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Skinner v. Tower

United States District Court, D. Vermont

March 27, 2019

JOSHUA SKINNER, Plaintiff
v.
ALEXANDER TOWER, et. al, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          William K. Sessions III District Court Judge.

         Plaintiff Joshua Skinner brings an action against multiple Vermont police officers for excessive force, false arrest, retaliation for the lawful exercise of First Amendment rights and various state law claims. Defendants Eric Shepard and Alexander Tower filed a Joint Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF 53. Defendants Michael DeFiore and Brian Claffy filed separate, individual motions for summary judgment. ECF 51, 52. DeFiore, Shepard, and Tower also filed a Motion for Rule 54(b) Entry of Judgment. ECF 62.

         For the reasons set forth below, Defiore's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, Shepard and Tower's Joint Motion for Summary Judgment is granted, and Claffy's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. Defendants' Motion for Rule 54(b) Entry of Judgment is also granted.

         Factual Background

         In the evening of May 2013, Plaintiff Joshua Skinner (“Skinner”) and his friend Christopher Coffen (“Coffen”) came to Burlington, Vermont for a work project. ECF 51-2 at 2. At the time, both men were living in Windham, Maine. Id. at 5. While in Burlington, the two men stayed in Coffen's car. Id. at 2. Coffen's car was an unregistered Cadillac sedan bearing license plates that belonged to a truck owned by Skinner. Id. at 3.

         On May 16, 2013, Skinner and Coffen went to Mike's Pizza where they consumed 2 to 3 beers each. Id. at 2. They left Mike's Pizza at 10:47 p.m. Id.

         Around 1:00 a.m. on May 17, 2013, Officer Alexander Tower of the Williston, Vermont police department pulled over Coffen for making a right turn without signaling. ECF 51-2 at 3. Skinner was still in the car, along with a dog. Id. at 7. Officer Tower asked Coffen for his license. Id. Coffen did not have a license at the time and gave Officer Tower a fake name when asked to identify himself. Id. Tower noted that Coffen was very tense, had watery and bloodshot eyes, and smelled faintly of alcohol. Id.

         Officer Tower returned to his car and spoke with dispatch to verify the name Coffen had given him. ECF 51-2 at 4. Officer Eric Shepard overheard Officer Tower's radio transmission and drove his police cruiser to the area. Id. Officer Shepard pulled his car behind Officer Tower's, checked in with Officer Tower, and then approached the Cadillac. Id. at 5. Officer Shepard noted that Coffen's eyes were bloodshot and watery and that the car smelled like alcohol. Id. Skinner and Coffen denied that they had been drinking and told Officer Shepard that they worked at Vermont Pub and Brewery. ECF 51-2 at 5.

         Officer Shepard was concerned that Skinner and Coffen might initiate a physical confrontation and called Sergeant Brian Claffy to assist. Id.

         Officer Tower approached the Cadillac again and requested that Coffen step out from the car to perform field sobriety exercises Id. Coffen became verbally aggressive and refused to exit the car. Id. Officer Tower asked Coffen to turn off the motor. Id. Coffen refused and began driving the car away from the officers. ECF 51-2 at 6.

         The officers followed the Cadillac in their vehicles, chasing the car at approximately 80 miles per hour. Id. Sergeant Michael DeFiore of the South Burlington Police Department heard a request for assistance on his radio and headed towards the scene. Id. at 7.

         Eventually, the Cadillac stopped on Route 2A in Williston. This section of Route 2A is a two-lane road with a small undefined shoulder and no artificial lighting. Id. The nearest commercial area is miles away. Id.

         Once the Cadillac stopped, officers Tower and Shepard got out of their cars, ordered Coffen to turn off the Cadillac, and commanded Coffen and Skinner to put their hands in the air. ECF 51-2 at 7. The officers ordered Coffen to open his door multiple times but Coffen refused. Id.

         Sergeant Claffy arrived and instructed Officer Tower to remove Coffen from the Cadillac. Id. Tower removed Coffen and handcuffed him. Id.

         Sergeant Claffy approached the passenger side of the Cadillac. Id. Skinner was in the passenger seat and had on his person an empty gun holster, a knife, and a set of brass knuckles. Id. A handgun magazine was visible on the floor of the Cadillac. ECF 51-2 at 9. The dog was still in the car and the officers inferred that the two men had been living in the Cadillac. ECF 51-2 at 14.

         While Coffen was being handcuffed, Skinner reached out of the driver-side window with his phone, in an effort to record the whole incident. ECF 60-1 at 2. At that point, Sergeant Claffy grabbed his hand and held it until Coffen was completely secured. ECF 51-2 at 9. Sergeant Claffy asked Skinner if there was a gun in the car and ordered Skinner to exit the Cadillac. Id. at 10.

         After Skinner exited the car, Sergeant Claffy patted him down and found the brass knuckles and knife. Id. Claffy smelled alcohol coming off of Skinner. Id. at 11. Sergeant Claffy asked Skinner again if there was a gun in the car but Skinner refused to answer. Id.

         Claffy told Skinner to put his hands on the trunk of the Cadillac and took away Skinner's phone. Id., ECF 60-1 at 3. ...


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