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Judge: Final ruling on contentious Arkansas stop and search must wait for defendant’s appeal

by Dale Ellis | January 30, 2023 at 7:36 a.m.
Marion Humphrey Jr. (left) and Arkansas State Police Trooper Steven Payton are shown in these undated file photos. (Left, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Rachel O'Neal; right, Arkansas State Police courtesy photo,

The civil trial of a state trooper accused of racial bias during the 2020 traffic stop 0f a third-year law-school student has been tentatively set for this spring by a federal judge during a motion hearing held last week at the federal courthouse in Little Rock.

Attorneys for Marion Humphrey Jr. -- the son of retired Pulaski County Judge Marion Humphrey Sr. -- had asked U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky to enter a final judgment on two of three claims made against Arkansas State Police Trooper Steven Payton, who had subjected Humphrey to an extended stop and search of a U-Haul truck he was driving to Little Rock from Fayetteville on Aug. 20, 2020.

During that stop, which Humphrey maintained in a lawsuit filed the following year was unjustified to begin with, Payton called for a drug dog to conduct a "sniff" around the truck, searched the truck on the basis of that "sniff" without finding anything illegal, and left Humphrey handcuffed in the back of Payton's police cruiser for an additional nine minutes while he wrote out a warning citation for careless driving after determining there were no grounds for arrest.

In his complaint, filed May 11, 2021, Humphrey made three separate claims: that no justification existed for the initial traffic stop; that the stop was extended unjustly and without probable cause for more than an hour; and that once Payton had determined there was no cause for arrest, he deliberately left Humphrey handcuffed in the backseat of Payton's patrol car for an additional nine minutes while he wrote out the warning citation for careless driving.

Humphrey said the three claims made in his complaint represented violations of his Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful search and seizure and his 14th Amendment protection of equal justice under the law. Last October, Payton's attorney, Vincent France with the attorney general's office, argued a motion for summary judgment in the case on the grounds that Payton was protected from Humphrey's lawsuit by qualified immunity.

In an order filed Dec. 20, Rudofsky dismissed Humphrey's claims regarding the initial stop and the subsequent search of the U-Haul on the grounds of qualified immunity but said that Payton "must stand trial" on the handcuffing claim. In his order, Rudofsky agreed Payton was covered by qualified immunity regarding his actions on the first two claims but said other rulings by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had "made it clear that once the justification for handcuffing a suspect goes away, the handcuffs need to come off."

During a telephone hearing last Wednesday, Rudofsky denied a motion by Humphrey to enter final judgment on the first two claims, which was made to clear the way for an appeal of the ruling to the 8th Circuit. In a footnote to his 63-page order denying summary judgment on the handcuffing claim by Payton, Rudofsky had encouraged both parties to file motions for final judgment under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 54(b), but said during the hearing last week that he had anticipated a motion for interlocutory appeal on the handcuffing claim from Payton that was never filed.

Rudofsky said had Payton done so, granting a motion on the stop and search claims while Payton pursued an interlocutory appeal on the handcuffing claim would have enabled the 8th Circuit to take up all three claims in one hearing. But, he said, because no motion was made regarding the handcuffing claim, a situation could arise in which the 8th Circuit would be hearing an appeal on denial of the first two claims before the third claim was resolved in district court, leading to the potential for a separate appeal being made over the same issue of qualified immunity in the same case.

"At this point you all are expecting we are going to trial on the handcuffing claim?" he asked.

"That's the appropriate posture of the case right now," replied France.

France agreed that his office's position on the matter was that granting a motion for final judgment on the initial stop and subsequent search claims would be premature at this point in the process given the lack of such an appeal on the handcuffing claim. Such a ruling, France maintained in an opposition brief to Humphrey's motion, would allow Humphrey a special interlocutory appeal right that is not available to most other plaintiffs "whose civil rights claims are dismissed for qualified immunity."

"When I wrote that footnote," Rudofsky said, "I assumed that the plaintiffs would be taking an interlocutory appeal on the handcuffing issue. Quite frankly, I'm kind of amazed they didn't but that's not my call."

Because of that, the judge said, the situation facing him had become, "a fairly different, if not significantly different," situation from what he had initially assumed would be the case. Emily Neal of Rogers, one of Humphrey's attorneys on the call, said she was also surprised by the state's apparent decision not to seek an interlocutory appeal but argued that should not have made a difference in Wednesday's hearing.

"The plaintiff was surprised the defendant would waive qualified immunity and stand for trial on the least favorable claim," Neal said, but argued that, "it makes good common sense to determine the scope of that trial in the beginning and we have the opportunity to affirm that now."

But Rudofsky, citing the 8th Circuit's discouragement in the past of "piecemeal appeals," denied the motion.

In his ruling from the bench, Rudofsky said had Payton filed a motion for interlocutory appeal on the handcuffing claim, a favorable ruling on Humphrey's motion for final judgment on the other two claims would have made it more likely the 8th Circuit could hear an appeal and issue a ruling on all three issues at once, which he said would more adequately address the appellate court's desire for efficiency "in the appellate process."

"Given that the defendant did not seek an interlocutory appeal on the handcuffing claim, we find ourselves in significantly different circumstances," Rudofsky said, which constituted, in his opinion, a more normal trial process, "where there are multiple claims in a case, where less than all of them are thrown out ... and the rest move on to trial. The 8th Circuit is pretty clear that in such a situation -- except in fairly unusual circumstances which I don't think we have here -- 54(b) should not be granted."

Instead, Rudofsky said, any appeals to be filed should be done at the conclusion of a trial to decide the handcuffing claim, which he tentatively scheduled for May 22.


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