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Herrera-Amaya v. State

United States District Court, D. Arizona

June 28, 2019

Audel Adan Herrera-Amaya, Plaintiff,
v.
State of Arizona, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          HONORABLE ROSEMARY MARQUZE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and for a New Trial (Doc. 193).[1] On September 10, 2018, an eight-day jury trial was held in this matter. (See Doc. 162, 172.) The Court granted a directed verdict on one Fourth Amendment search claim, and following just over three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiff's favor on a second Fourth Amendment search claim. (Doc. 174.) The jury awarded nominal and punitive damages on both claims. (Id.) The jury found for Defendants on all remaining civil rights and intentional tort claims. (Id.) Judgment was entered accordingly on September 20, 2018. (Doc. 182.) The Court will deny entry of judgment as a matter of law and deny Plaintiff's request for a new trial.

         I. Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Plaintiff renews his request for the Court to find “that there was no license plate violation and that the traffic stop was unconstitutionally extended[, ] which resulted in the unreasonable search.” (Doc. 193 at 2 (capitalizations omitted).) Plaintiff supports his Motion by reference to the arguments made in his Partial Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 61 at 4-6, 6-14; Doc. 72 at 2-3 and 3-4) and in his original Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, brought in open court at the close of the seventh trial day (Doc. 171 at 2-3; Doc. 193 at 2.) In addition, Plaintiff argues that judgment as a matter of law is appropriate because Duckett had no legal basis under Arizona statutes to extend the traffic stop to issue a “warning” rather than a “traffic complaint.” (Doc. 193 at 2.) Lastly, Plaintiff argues that the jury's finding of an unreasonable search shows that his “Fourth Amendment rights were violated when [Duckett] extended the stop and conducted the search without probable cause[.]” (Doc. 193 at 2.)

         Defendants respond that this Motion, along with the Motion for a New Trial, are simply untimely renewed motions for reconsideration of the Court's order on partial summary judgment. (Doc. 198 at 2-4.) Defendants also argue that the Motion is improper under Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because Plaintiff failed to raise the arguments made therein or cite the relevant facts and case law when he made his oral motion during trial. (Id. at 3-4.)

         In reply, Plaintiff argues that his Rule 50 Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law is not improper. (Doc. 199 at 2.) He asserts that “the undisputed evidence at trial showed that Officer Duckett broadened the scope of the traffic stop . . . .” (Doc. 199 at 2.) In addition, he asks the “Court to clarify that a violation of the Fourth Amendment is not premised upon the average length of a stop . . . but, rather that the Fourth Amendment prohibits the extension of a stop . . . based upon the unique facts of each particular stop.” (Doc. 199 at 3.) Plaintiff argues that officers must act diligently and expeditiously in completing a traffic stop and that any prolongation unsupported by reasonable suspicion contravenes the driver's Fourth Amendment rights. (Doc. 199 at 3-4.) Plaintiff then draws the Court's attention to Defendants' non-responsiveness to his argument that Duckett lacked authority under Arizona law to extend the stop to issue a written traffic “warning” as opposed to a “traffic complaint” or oral warning. (Doc. 199 at 5.) Plaintiff asserts that “as a matter of law” Plaintiff did not violate the “clearly visible” license plate requirement of A.R.S. § 28-2354 (Doc. 199 at 5), although Plaintiff fails to explain what implication such a conclusion should have on the Court's consideration of his Motion.

         On the seventh day of the jury trial, Plaintiff presented his Rule 50(a) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law. (See Doc. 171.) In the Motion, Plaintiff sought five rulings as a matter of law: (1) Plaintiff did not violate Arizona's license plate statute, (2) Duckett unreasonably extended the traffic stop by asking unrelated questions before returning Plaintiff's paperwork, (3) the traffic stop was not at any time consensual, (4) Duckett's running his hand along the top of the truck bed constituted an unreasonable search, and (5) Duckett's knocking the side of the truck bed with his hand constituted an unreasonable search. (See Tr. Trans., Sept. 19, 2018 at 258-67.) The Court orally granted the Rule 50(a) Motion only as to the fifth argument; namely, the Court found that when Duckett knocked his hand along the side of the truck bed he effected a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and he did so absent probable cause. (Tr. Trans., Sept. 19, 2018 at 267.)

         A party may renew a motion for judgment as a matter of law no later than 28 days after the entry of judgment in a jury trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). Failure to bring a Rule 50(a) motion before the case was submitted to the jury will preclude bringing a renewed motion under Rule 50(b). OTR Wheel Eng'g, Inc. v. West Worldwide Servs., Inc., 897 F.3d 1008, 1016 (9th Cir. 2018). “Likewise, a ‘party cannot raise arguments in its post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b) that it did not raise in its pre-verdict Rule 50(a) motion.'” Id. (quoting Freund v. Nycomed Amersham, 347 F.3d 752, 761 (9th Cir. 2003)). The Federal Rules require a motion for judgment as a matter of law to “specify the judgment sought and the law and facts that entitle the movant to the judgment.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(2).

         “The test [on a Rule 50(b) motion] is whether the evidence, construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, permits only one reasonable conclusion, and that conclusion is contrary to that of the jury.” Estate of Diaz v. City of Anaheim, 840 F.3d 592, 604 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting White v. Ford Motor Co., 312 F.3d 998, 1010 (9th Cir. 2002) (internal quotations omitted)). In considering a Rule 50(b) motion, the court “must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor.” Colony Cove Props., LLC v. City of Carson, 888 F.3d 445, 450 (9th Cir. 2018) (quoting Ostad v. Or. Health Sci. U., 327 F.3d 876, 881 (9th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Following consideration of the renewed motion, the court may “(1) allow judgment on the verdict . . .; (2) order a new trial; or (3) direct the entry of judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b).

         Plaintiff's Rule 50 Motion primarily seeks for the Court to vacate the jury verdict and enter judgment as a matter of law in Plaintiff's favor as to two issues: (1) whether Duckett's unrelated questions unconstitutionally extended the traffic stop, and (2) whether Duckett's extending the stop to issue a “warning” as opposed to a “traffic complaint” or oral warning was unconstitutional. (Doc. 193 at 2.) Liberally construed, Plaintiff raised the first ground for relief in his Rule 50(a) motion but not the second ground. Accordingly, the Court will deny the second ground as waived, see OTR Wheel, 897 F.3d at 1016, and address only the first ground.

         In his pre-verdict Rule 50(a) motion, Plaintiff argued that he was entitled to judgment on the issue of unconstitutional seizure because Duckett asked unrelated questions, and, based on Duckett's testimony, Duckett only obtained independent reasonable suspicion based upon Plaintiff's non-responsiveness to some of those unrelated questions. (Tr. Trans. Sept. 19, 2018 at 260, 262-63.) Although Plaintiff is correct “that the jury verdict found that Officer Duckett violated [Plaintiff's] Fourth Amendment rights by conducting a full search of his vehicle[, ]” (Doc. 174 at 2), the jury also found that Plaintiff was not unreasonably seized based upon the length and scope of the seizure. (See Doc. 174 at 2 (jury verdict finding against Plaintiff on his constitutional unreasonable seizure claim); see also Doc. 173 at 25 (instruction regarding unreasonable seizure).)

         “[L]aw enforcement may not extend a traffic stop with tasks unrelated to the traffic mission, absent independent reasonable suspicion.” United States v. Landeros, 913 F.3d 862, 866 (9th Cir. 2019) (citing Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1616-17 (2015)). If new grounds for suspicion unfold over the course of a stop, the stop may be permissibly extended. See United States v. Rodgers, 656 F.3d 1023, 1027 (9th Cir. 2011).

         Considering the evidence presented at trial in the light most favorable to Defendants, Colony Cove, 888 F.3d at 450, the Court finds that the evidence does not lead inescapably to only one conclusion regarding whether there was independent reasonable suspicion for extending the scope of the traffic stop. See Diaz, 840 F.3d at 604. Therefore, the jury's conclusion that reasonable suspicion existed, and no unconstitutional seizure occurred, is not contrary to the evidence, and must be upheld. Plaintiff's Rule 50(b) Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law will be denied.

         II. Motion for a New Trial

         Plaintiff seeks a new trial on three grounds: (1) there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict that Duckett had reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop, (2) the Court failed to include Plaintiff's requested language regarding use of excessive force in Jury Instruction 22, and (3) the Court failed to incorporate Plaintiff's requested changes to Jury Instruction 21. (See Doc. 193.) In support of the Motion, Plaintiff attaches at Exhibit 1 his requested changes to Jury Instruction 22. (Doc. 193-1.)

         In response, Defendants assert that none of Plaintiff's reasons for requesting a new trial are sufficient because the evidence “clearly established” that Plaintiff was “following too closely” (Doc. 198 at 5); considering objective factors was appropriate for the excessive-force inquiry (id. at 6); and the Court correctly declined to amend Jury Instruction 21 as Plaintiff requested (id. at 6-9). Plaintiff filed a reply in support of his Motion (Doc. 199).

         “The grant of a new trial is ‘confided almost entirely to the exercise of discretion on the part of the trial court.'” Murphy v. City of Long Beach, 914 F.2d 183, 186 (9th Cir. 1990) (quoting Allied Chem. Corp. v. Daiflon, Inc., 449 U.S. 33, 36 (1980)). The court may grant a Rule 59 motion for a new trial “for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). “Such reasons may include a ‘verdict that is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence,' a verdict ‘based upon false or perjurious evidence,' or ‘to prevent a clear miscarriage of justice.'” Crowley v. Epicept Corp., 883 F.3d 739, 751 (9th Cir. 2018). Erroneous or inadequate jury instructions may also serve as bases for a new trial. Murphy, 914 F.2d at 187.

         A. Reasonable Suspicion to Initiate the Traffic Stop

         Plaintiff asserts that “[t]here was insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict that [Duckett] had reasonable suspicion” to initiate a traffic stop. (Doc. 193 at 3.) To support this assertion, Plaintiff points to “undisputed evidence” that “Duckett did not see any dangerous condition on the highway” and that Plaintiff “was maintaining a steady speed of 65 mph[.]” (Id.) In addition, Plaintiff relies on Duckett's testimony that Plaintiff followed less than two seconds behind another vehicle for no more than 15 seconds. (Id.) From this testimony Plaintiff extrapolates that he was between 11.9 and 8.5 car lengths behind the other car. (Id.) Duckett also testified that the two-second rule is commonly employed for determining whether a car is “following too close, ” but that following at 6.5 car lengths is a safe distance. Based upon this evidence, Plaintiff argues that “there was insufficient evidence to find that [Plaintiff] was following too close” and that Plaintiff, as a matter of law, did not violate A.R.S. § 28-730.[2] (Id. at 3-4.) Accordingly, Plaintiff argues that the court “should grant a new trial on the issue of whether [Duckett] violated [Plaintiff's] Fourth Amendment rights by” initiating the traffic stop.

         Defendant's brief response asserts that “Duckett's testimony established that he had reasonable suspicion to stop Plaintiff for following too closely.” (Doc. 198 at 5 (capitalization omitted).) The Court agrees. The relevant question is not whether Plaintiff did in fact violate the statute, but whether Duckett had reasonable suspicion that Plaintiff had violated or was violating the statute. See Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530, 536 (2014) (holding that an officer only needs reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop, and such reasonable suspicion may “rest on a mistaken understanding of the scope of a legal prohibition”). The evidence presented at trial could support a finding that Duckett had reasonable suspicion, based upon employing the two-second rule, that Plaintiff was following another vehicle “more closely than is reasonable and prudent[, ]” even though the two-second rule may be inconsistent with a car-length distance approximation. See A.R.S. § 28-730(A). The Court will deny Plaintiff's Motion for a New Trial to the extent it is premised on the “following too closely” evidence.

         B. Excessive Force, Jury Instruction 22

         Plaintiff takes issue with two sections of the excessive-force instruction. The first is with the following language, which Plaintiff requested but the Court did not include:

[a]n officer's statement that he feared for his or other's safety or the mere possibility that an altercation might become dangerous is insufficient to warrant the use of force. There must be objective factors to justify such concern.

(Doc. 193 at 4; see also Doc. 193-1 at 2; Doc. 163 at 2.) Plaintiff argues that this language was necessary because, based on the instruction given, jurors could have found that Duckett did fear for his safety even in the absence of objective factors justifying the use of force for officer safety or the safety of others. (Doc. 193 at 4.) Put differently, the jury could have concluded that Duckett's “subjective fear” was sufficient to justify the use of force. (Doc. 193 at 4-5.) Plaintiff cites Bryan v. McPherson to support the necessity of his proposed language. 630 F.3d 805, 826 (9th Cir. 2010) (“A simple statement by an officer that he fears for his safety or the safety others is not enough; there must be objective factors to justify such a concern.”) (quoting Deorle v. Rutherford, 272 F.3d 1272, 1281 (9th Cir. 2001)). The second section of the excessive-force instruction that Plaintiff takes issue with is the Court's use of the phrase: “the availability of alternative methods to subdue Mr. Herrera” as opposed to the phrase: “the availability of alternative methods to resolve any legitimate concerns the officer had for his safety.” (Doc. 193 at 5.) Plaintiff argues that his proposed ...


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