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Becker v. Crank

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Southeastern Division

November 12, 2014

RYAN BECKER, Plaintiff,
D.W. CRANK, Defendant.


STEPHEN N. LIMBAUGH, Jr., District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on several motions following a jury verdict for plaintiff Ryan Becker and against defendant D.W. Crank.

I. Background

Plaintiff is an agent with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ("ATF"). On March 6, 2012, plaintiff was traveling on northbound Interstate 55 when he was pulled over by Missouri State Highway Patrol officer D.W. Crank. Defendant Crank arrested plaintiff for driving while intoxicated and drove plaintiff to a patrol station. At the station, defendant administered a breathalyzer test, and plaintiff registered a 0.0 result. Plaintiff was then released from custody and filed this case against defendant Crank for wrongful arrest. After a two-day trial, the jury found in favor of plaintiff and awarded him $250, 000 in damages.

Defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law (#85) and for a new trial (#87). Those motions have been fully briefed. Plaintiff has moved for costs (#82) and attorneys' fees (#83), but no responses have been filed, and the time for doing so has passed.

I. Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law (#85)

Defendant seeks a judgment as a matter of law because he states that he had at least arguable probable cause to arrest plaintiff and thus has qualified immunity. See Borgman v. Kedley, 646 F.3d 518, 522-23 (8th Cir. 2011); Walker v. City of Pine Bluff, 414 F.3d 989, 992 (8th Cir. 2005). An officer has probable cause to make a warrantless arrest when the totality of the circumstances at the time of the arrest "are sufficient to lead a reasonable person to believe that the defendant has committed or is committing an offense." Fisher v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 619 F.3d 811, 816 (8th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted). "Arguable probable cause exists even where an officer mistakenly arrests a suspect believing it is based in probable cause if the mistake is objectively reasonable.'" Borgman, 646 F.3d at 523 (citing Amrine v. Brooks, 522 F.3d 823, 832 (8th Cir. 2008)).

Defendant insists he had "arguable probable cause" to arrest plaintiff for driving while intoxicated because he said he observed plaintiff driving unsafely, he detected what he believed to be the smell of alcohol, he noticed that plaintiff's eyes appeared bloodshot and, while attempting a preliminary horizontal gaze nystagmus test, that plaintiff's eyes appeared jerky or jumpy. Further, plaintiff refused to perform his B-to-O alphabet test.

"The probable cause standard inherently allows room for reasonable mistakes by a reasonable person, but the qualified immunity standard affords law enforcement officials an even wider berth for mistaken judgments by protecting all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.'" Ulrich v. Pope County, 715 F.3d 1054, 1059 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229 (1991)). Defendant also argues that the suggestion that he harbored a grudge against plaintiff should be disregarded because whether arguable probable cause exists relies on an objectively reasonable officer standard, not the credibility of accusations about the arresting officer's motive. Id. at 1057-60.

The Court cannot say as a matter of law that defendant's "mistake" of arresting a sober person for driving while intoxicated was objectively reasonable under the circumstances. The defendant did not explain how he could have smelled the strong odor of alcohol on plaintiff, and plaintiff and/or the video of the encounter itself refuted defendant's purported reasons for arresting plaintiff. The video showed plaintiff ably navigating pulling over while crossing a busy interstate exchange, removing his weapons and walking to defendant's vehicle, and speaking clearly while, among other things, requesting a breathalyzer. Plaintiff testified that his eyes were not bloodshot and that he refused defendant's B-to-O "test" because it was subjective.[1] Defendant claims that plaintiff did not ask to take a breath test, but rather plaintiff asked only if defendant possessed one; defendant's suggestion that plaintiff was not asking to take the breath test is not a reasonable interpretation. Defense counsel delved deeply into the events of plaintiff's workday on the day of the arrest, but no explanation for the alleged smell of alcohol was provided.[2] Had defendant been able to explain the alleged odor of alcohol (which plaintiff, again, denies), the objective reasonability of the arrest would have been a closer call; however, defendant was not entitled to qualified immunity under the facts presented at trial.

II. Motion for New Trial (#87)

Defendant moves for a new trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 because he states that the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and as such reflects a miscarriage of justice; the verdict resulted from prejudicial evidentiary rulings; and because defendant was unfairly surprised and prejudiced by plaintiff's evidence relating to damages.

A. Weight of the Evidence

A new trial is warranted when the jury's verdict resulted in a miscarriage of justice. White v. Pence, 961 F.2d 776, 780 (8th Cir. 1992). A miscarriage arises where the verdict is against the great, clear, or overwhelming weight of the evidence. Frumkin v. Mayo Clinic, 965 F.2d 620, 625 (8th Cir. 1992). This Court "is not free to reweigh the evidence and set aside the jury verdict merely because the jury could have drawn different inferences or conclusions or because judges feel ...

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