The town of Colchester is looking to dismiss a federal lawsuit accusing one of its police officers of racial bias during a traffic stop that was later thrown out in court.
Michael Leddy, an attorney from McNeil, Leddy and Sheahan, submitted the dismissal requests last week on behalf of the town, officer Victor Bitca and former police Chief Jennifer Morrison.
The three parties are named in a complaint filed in March by Ralph Moore, a black man from Brooklyn, N.Y. who was arrested and spent more than eight months in jail until a judge ruled he was searched illegally during a 2016 traffic stop.
The suit, which asks for damages beyond $75,000, alleges unlawful search and seizure and a violation of equal protection rights, arguing Bitca unlawfully expanded his investigation from a routine traffic stop to one focused on drug activity because of Moore’s race.
Moore was a passenger in a car at the Colchester Dunkin’ Donuts when Bitca pulled over the car because it failed to signal while leaving the parking lot and had a defective brake light, according to court filings.
Bitca informed Moore and the driver that he was investigating a trespassing report but soon began a line of questioning unrelated to that complaint, asking whether they had anything illegal in the vehicle. He called for back-up after the driver allegedly consented to a search of the vehicle, and when more officers arrived, he ordered Moore out of the car, at which point the man “panicked” and ran, the lawsuit says.
Officers chased Moore down and arrested him, citing him for a drug and firearm offense, as well as a charge for providing false information to a police officer and one related to a warrant in New York. He was held on $100,000 bail, which the suit says he couldn’t pay.
The suit also alleges there’s no video or audio evidence showing the driver’s consent to any search, and that police only asked her to sign a consent to search document after Moore’s arrest.
In court filings, Leddy, the town’s attorney, challenges the suit’s depiction of the stop, starting with the claim that there’s no evidence the driver consented to the search; the town says video and audio recording of the stop clearly captured the driver’s consent, which alone would negate any Fourth Amendment claims, Leddy argues.
Further, the town says that Bitca is immune from the lawsuit because of what’s known as the qualified immunity doctrine, which protects public officials from lawsuits unless they violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right.
“The question to be asked is whether a reasonable officer in the position of Officer Bitca could have believed that it was lawful to ask [the driver] for consent to search her vehicle,” the filing reads.
One judge has already ruled against the search, however, which led to a dismissal of the drug and weapon charges against Moore. Explaining her decision, Judge Nancy Waples noted that Bitca “did not directly observe anything suggesting drug activity” and therefore had no “reasonable suspicion” to expand his investigation beyond the trespassing complaint.
The suit also notes that the driver, who’s white, was never asked to step out of the vehicle, while Moore was. Moore’s attorney, Bob Appel, told the Sun in March that he believed Bitca’s suspicion of Moore was based on race.
“To me, it’s the definition of racial profiling,” Appel said. “What officers have been known to do, whether intentionally or not, is to superimpose their bias – implicit or explicit – instead of using their trained investigative skills to discern the objective evidence that somebody is up to something. Just because their black that doesn’t cut it under the constitution.”
The town, meanwhile, argues Moore failed to show he was treated differently than the driver because he ran from vehicle before Bitca had a chance to ask the driver to step out of the car.
Plus, officer Bitca showed no overtly racially-motivated conduct – in fact, the town argues, Bitca’s exhibited a “polite, professional demeanor” with both of the vehicle’s occupants, and therefore Moore has failed to “plausibly allege” that he was the victim of “intentional discrimination based on his race.”
The lawsuit also claims the violation of Moore’s rights was the result of the town and Morrison failure to adequately train or supervise their officers. To back up the claim, the suit cites a 2017 study titled, “Driving While Black and Brown in Vermont,” which posited that black drivers in Vermont are four times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white drivers.
Colchester, one of the 29 towns included in the study, had only one years’ worth of data showing Colchester officers stopped 225 black drivers and conducted searches four times, finding contraband on three occasions. While this study came out a year after the stop, the suit claims Morrison knew of data from previous years prior to Moore’s arrest that showed a “measurable disparity” in the rates of searching black drivers compared to white drivers.
While passenger-specific data was not provided, it’s reasonable to infer black passengers were treated similarly to black drivers, the suit argues, alleging the disparities “demonstrate a de facto policy, practice and/or custom of unlawfully discriminating against individuals because of their race.”
Leddy, the town’s attorney, took issue with this argument. He said the complaint fails to allege any facts that would suggest the town or Chief Morrison ever showed “deliberate indifference” to the training or supervision of the officers and added reference to the study’s data is “at the very least misleading.”
“If anything, this data shows that either Colchester police officers were properly handling vehicle searches, or that the data sample size is so small (4 total searches) that no conclusion could possibly be drawn,” the filing reads.
Moore’s attorney has yet to file a response to the dismissal requests.