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Officer sued for arresting man suffering medical emergency

Where an individual was arrested for driving under the influence, but he claimed that he was suffering from a medical emergency at the time, no signs of drug or alcohol were apparent, he passed two breathalyzers and another motorist reported a medical emergency to 911, his malicious prosecution and false imprisonment claims survived the motion to dismiss.

Background

Christopher D. Novak sues Virginia trooper Allen T. Stuart because of Stuart’s arrest and prosecution of Novak for driving while under the influence. Novak asserts that he was suffering a medical emergency and that Stuart had no probable cause to believe otherwise. Stuart has moved to dismiss all three counts in the first amended complaint, as well as Novak’s request for punitive damages.

Malicious prosecution

Stuart contends that that the first amended complaint does not allege facts indicating he lacked probable cause to arrest Novack and that the facts do not suggest such probable cause dissipated prior to his obtaining the arrest warrant. 

The relevant Virginia criminal statute makes it unlawful for a person to operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of any intoxicant or drug to a degree that impairs the person’s ability to drive or operate the vehicle safely. The alleged facts that could, under certain circumstances, support a probable cause are: (1) Novak was confused and disoriented to a degree that rendered him unable to properly operate his vehicle, turn off his vehicle and agree to medical treatment prior to being arrested and (2) Novak failed a stand and walk field sobriety test for a lack of balance. 

Stuart argues that the alleged facts are enough to support probable cause for being under the influence of an intoxicant and that there were “multiple signs of impairment.” He cites to a number of cases in which probable cause was found for an intoxication-related offense when the defendant was actually experiencing or claimed to be experiencing a medical condition that may have caused similar symptoms. But in all of those cases, the behaviors were more extensive that what is alleged here. 

I recognize that “[p]robable cause is not a high bar,” and courts, including Virginia’s highest court, have found probable cause to exist for intoxication-related offenses based on behavior when no drugs or alcohol have been found. Nevertheless, at this stage in the litigation I find that the plaintiff has plausibly alleged that Stuart did not have probable cause to obtain a warrant.

Novak alleges that he had objective signs of injury — blood on his person — and that the 911 caller had reported what appeared to be a medical emergency. The first amended complaint indicates that no signs of drug or alcohol were apparent, and that Novak quickly regained his understanding on the way to the hospital after failing just one field test for balance issues and passing two breathalyzers. Moreover, Novak’s allegation that Stuart omitted facts material to the magistrate’s probable cause determination also plausibly indicates a constitutional violation.

Virginia false imprisonment

Stuart contends that Novak’s state false imprisonment claim fails for the same reason: that he had probable cause to arrest Novak for violating Virginia’s driving while intoxicated law. I find that the first amended complaint plausibly alleges that Stuart lacked probable cause to make the initial arrest, so I need not decide whether the post-arrest facts are sufficiently exculpatory.

In addition, because probable cause determinations are generally more appropriate when the record is fully developed, I find that Novak has proffered sufficient facts plausibly indicating a lack of probable cause as to his arrest.

Qualified immunity

It may be the case that Stuart observed sufficient behavior to reasonably believe Novak was intoxicated beyond what is alleged in the first amended complaint. As I have earlier indicated, the record is simply not developed. Therefore, Stuart cannot establish a right to qualified immunity on the face of the present pleadings.

Punitive damages

Punitive damages are available under § 1983 and Virginia tort law where the plaintiff shows a reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others, or actions that are prompted by ill will, malevolence grudge, spite, wicked intention or the conscious disregard for the rights of another. Where such damages are theoretically recoverable under the applicable law, as here, I find that a motion to dismiss is “a premature means to attack a request for punitive damages.”

Defendant’s motion to dismiss denied.

Novak v. Stuart, Case No. 1:22-cv-00010, Aug. 22, 2022. WDVA at Abingdon (Jones). VLW 022-3-363. 17 pp.