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MASTERSON ONLINE: Warning a federal case

by Mike Masterson | November 5, 2022 at 3:20 a.m.

I've become intrigued by the civil case involving Little Rock resident Marion Andrew Humphrey Jr. who has accused Arkansas State Trooper Steven Payton of violating his civil rights by handcuffing and detaining him following a lengthy 2020 traffic stop that led only to a warning ticket for carelessly changing lanes at an exit.

Whew! That lede sentence was a mouthful.

After a hearing the other day over this warning ticket that literally has become a federal case, the matter is under consideration by U.S. Eastern District Judge Lee P. Rudofsky, who had lots of questions to ask the state about exactly how this stop even occurred in the first place.

Humphrey, a third-year law student at the University of Arkansas at the time of the stop and son of former Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Marion Humphrey, explained he had been driving a U-Haul along Interstate 40 and started to take the wrong exit but corrected himself when he realized his error and quickly rejoined the flow of traffic.

I can relate to the same sort of misjudgment. Apparently his sudden correction did not cause a traffic problem.

However, Trooper Payton obviously saw otherwise and pulled Humphrey over for "careless and prohibited driving" for allegedly crossing the white "fog line" on the right side of the highway.

You'd think at my age I'd know that's what those lines are for. I've always believed they just marked the outermost edge of that lane.

In a news account, reporter Dale Ellis cited the complaint, which says Payton called for a K-9 dog that alerted to the presence of drugs in the truck. Payton and another officer searched the U-Haul while Humphrey sat in the back of Payton's patrol car, handcuffed, for about 80 minutes. But there apparently were no drugs.

"After the search," Ellis wrote, "Humphrey was released with a warning for careless and prohibited driving because he allegedly drove onto the fog line after signaling to take an exit and then changing his mind. The entire stop took an hour and 50 minutes. He filed a lawsuit against Payton in federal court on March 2021, alleging civil-rights violations pursuant to the Fourth and Eighth amendments to the U.S. Constitution."

The news account of the hearing said the judge focused on why the trooper stopped Humphrey in the first place. Payton's attorney, from the state attorney general's office, responded, "He was crossing over to take the exit. He decides he wasn't certain if it was, so he pulls back onto the interstate."

Rudofsky then asked what traffic law the state would cite to justify the stop if its defense hinged on Payton seeing Humphrey start to take the exit then change his mind.

"Improper lane change," the attorney said. "It's one of the parts under careless and prohibited ..."

"Why is that an improper lane change?" Rudofsky asked.

The response: "Because he's attempting and starts to take an exit and then changes his mind. That creates a traffic hazard because ... he's got his blinker on, cars behind him are anticipating that this U-Haul is going to go to the right as indicated by his blinker and then decides not to after he's already made a movement to take the exit."

Rudofsky pressed the issue, the story said, noting that what Payton said he saw from his patrol car was not apparent on the video from his dashcam.

"Rudofsky continued to question whether Payton could actually see Humphrey touch the fog line from the distance he was behind him when the violation was to have occurred," Ellis wrote. "He also questioned if state law governing lane changes would be applicable to 'taking or not taking an exit.'"

The state's response: Because an exit ramp would be considered a lane of travel, the statute regarding failure to maintain control would apply.

Humphrey's attorney argued that questions regarding Payton's suspicions over Humphrey's travel plans and his display of nervousness over being stopped were issues of fact for a jury to decide.

Rudofsky said it was his call to make regarding whether Humphrey's inconsistent answers were sufficient to raise reasonable suspicion. Humphrey's attorney cited an 8th Circuit case in which the court ruled that one or two factors, "with one being nervousness, are not enough to raise reasonable suspicion."

I don't know about you, but I don't know many drivers who don't become nervous after being stopped by a police officer.

After lengthy questioning and several reviews of the video where the alleged offense occurred, Rudofsky told the attorneys that he would take the matter under advisement, calling it a very weighty issue that is likely to wind up with the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis however he decides.

Just reading about this has left me confused over what to do the next time I suddenly realize I'm about to take the wrong exit off an interstate and my wheels touch the sacrosanct fog line on a bright sunny day. Should I safely rejoin highway traffic or go ahead and take the wrong exit anyway?

The judge is right when he says whichever way he rules is almost certain to be appealed and likely drag on (and on).

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Print Headline: Warning a federal case

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