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Stancuna v. Iovene

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

March 15, 2018




         In this civil rights action, Plaintiff Vernon Stancuna claims that after filing a lawsuit against Defendant Christopher Iovene for false arrest, Defendant Iovene falsely arrested Plaintiff without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and in so doing also retaliated against Plaintiff for exercising his First Amendment right of access to the courts. Defendant moves [Doc. # 154] for summary judgment on both claims. For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment as to Plaintiffs Fourth Amendment claim and GRANTS Defendant's Motion as to his First Amendment retaliation claim.

         I. Summary Judgment Record

         A. Undisputed Facts

         Plaintiff is a resident of Wallingford, Connecticut and Defendant is an officer in the Wallingford Police Department. (Compl. [Doc. # 1-2] ¶ 1-2.) On November 21, 2006, the New Haven Register reported that Plaintiff had filed a lawsuit against Defendant for false arrest. (Id. ¶ 3.) Around 7:00 p.m. that evening, during his 4:00-11:00 p.m. patrol shift, Defendant pulled his cruiser up to a stop sign en route to a house alarm call, and saw a gray Mercedes Benz (belonging to Plaintiff) stopped in front of him. There were children in the back seat and a woman passenger in the front. Both Plaintiff and Defendant then proceeded from the stop sign straight on to Quigley Road, Wallingford. Shortly thereafter, Defendant activated his police cruiser overheard strobe lights, Plaintiff immediately stopped, and Defendant swerved to avoid hitting Plaintiffs car. Defendant radioed for back up, exited his cruiser, and approached the driver's side window. Defendant recognized Plaintiff, had knowledge of the Register article, and signaled him to roll down his window. Plaintiff instead opened the rear and front driver's side doors and gave Defendant the requested paperwork through the opened driver door. He then remained in the car as Defendant directed, and began to make a call on his cell phone. After a lieutenant and second police officer arrived, all three walked to the passenger side, and the Lieutenant explained to Plaintiff that he was being issued a ticket for talking on a cell phone while driving and told him he was free to leave.

         Plaintiff later pled not guilty and was tried before a state court Magistrate and found guilty on October 18, 2007. He moved for a trial de novo but none was ever scheduled. Through counsel, on December 1, 2008, Plaintiff requested that this case be nolled. This request has never been acted on. In September 2014, a new prosecutor nolled Plaintiffs case together with the cases of other defendants who had requested de novo trials that had never been scheduled.

         B. Disputed Facts

         According to Defendant, the "Mercedes hesitated at the stop sign for a longer-than-normal period of time, which caused me concern; I believed that the driver might be under the influence of alcohol or drugs or lost[.]" (Ex. A (Iovene Aff.) to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc# 154-3] ¶ 12.) Defendant further attests that while stopped at the stop sign, he "observed the driver of the Mercedes lift a cell phone up with his right hand, turn to his right and look at the phone[.]" (Id. ¶ 13.) According to Defendant, as he continued to drive towards the location of the house alarm call, the "Mercedes was traveling at [a] slower-than-normal rate of speed and kept veering to the right" and he "also observed the driver of the Mercedes lift up the cell phone several times with his right hand, turn to his right and look at the phone[.]" (Id. ¶ 15-17.)

         In opposition, Plaintiff denies in a signed and sworn (but not notarized) affidavit that he stopped at the stop sign for a longer than normal period of time and that "as a cautious driver at a stop sign, I was looking in all traffic directions before proceeding through the stop sign." (Stancuna Aff. [Doc. # 169-1] ¶¶ 5-6.) Plaintiff denies that he "was traveling at a slower than normal rate of speed or that [he] was veering to the right." (Id. ¶ 7 (emphasis in original).) Plaintiff denies that he was using his cell phone "at all prior to being pulled over by" Defendant. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         The parties agree that Plaintiff never held the cell phone to his ear, (Parties' L.R. Stmts, ¶ 12), but Defendant claims that it "looked like [Plaintiff] was dialing or searching for a number on the phone[, ]" (Iovene Aff. ¶ 18). Defendant claims that after he "activated [his] overhead strobe lights [which automatically prompted the dash cam in his police cruiser to begin recording], the Mercedes immediately slammed onto its brakes, causing the vehicle's front end to dip forward and the rear end to lift[, ]" and that Defendant "applied [his] brakes and swerved into the north bound lane to avoid hitting the Mercedes[.]" (Iovene Aff. ¶¶ 22-23.) Defendant claims that he "believed that the driver might be intoxicated, as based upon [his] training and experience, such sudden stops are an indicative [sic] of driving under the influence [.]" (Id. ¶ 24.) Plaintiff denies that he was intoxicated or driving under the influence. (Stancuna Aff. ¶ 9.)

         Defendant radioed in his stop and backed his cruiser up behind the Mercedes. (Parties' L.R. Stmts, ¶ 19.) Defendant claims that at this point, before he exited his cruiser and approached the Mercedes, he "did not know who owned, or was operating, the Mercedes[.]" (Iovene Aff. ¶ 26.) Earlier that day, Defendant had become aware of an article in that day's edition of the New Haven Register, which reported that Plaintiff was suing him. (Parties' L.R. Stmts. ¶ 25.)

         Defendant testified that Plaintiff responded to Defendant in an "irrational and irritated manner" (Def. Dep. at 107), including opening both driver side doors and saying "this is how it's gonna be, you want to harass me, we know you're a dirty cop[, ]" (Parties' L.R. Stmts. ¶ 28.) After Plaintiff gave Defendant his paperwork, (Parties' L.R. Stmts. ¶¶ 24, 29), Plaintiff stayed in his car as Defendant ordered and began calling someone on his cellphone, (id. ¶ 31). Defendant shut both of the Mercedes' doors and called for a supervisor to respond to the scene as he walked back to his cruiser. (Id. ¶ 32.) Officer Jenni Lee Fratellenico arrived as a backup officer and remained on the scene. (Id. 5 33.) Defendant remained in his cruiser with his dash cam recording until Lieutenant William Wright arrived on scene. (Id. ¶ 34.) As Defendant was explaining the events to Wright, his dash cam video tape ended. (Id. ¶ 35.) However, this tape recorded none of Plaintiff s conduct leading to the stop. Fratellenico then turned on her dash cam, which remained running until Plaintiff was permitted to drive away. (Id. ¶ 36.) Wright, Fratellenico, and Defendant walked to the passenger's side of the Mercedes, where Wright explained to Plaintiff that he was being issued a ticket for the cell phone violation and that, if he got a hands-free device, the court would suspend the ticket. (Id. ¶ 38.)

         According to Defendant, Plaintiff then responded with disparaging remarks, which Plaintiff denies, but his provocative commentary is recorded on the video. (Iovene Aff. ¶ 45; Stancuna Aff. ¶ 10.) Wright told Plaintiff he was free to leave. (Parties' L.R. Stmts. ¶ 40.) According to Defendant, Fratellenico's dash cam shows that Plaintiff then sped off, which Plaintiff denies. (Parties' L.R. Stmts. ¶ 41; Stancuna Aff. ¶ 11.) The dash cam records the sound of a vehicle accelerating rapidly.

         Plaintiff declined to pay the ticket and instead pleaded not guilty, appearing for trial on October 18, 2007, at which the magistrate found Plaintiff guilty and fined him $100. (Ex. C (Pl.'s Dep.) to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 154-5] at 68:12-69:9, 70:2-4.)

         Thereafter, Plaintiff, through his attorney, filed a request for a trial de novo. (Parties' L.R. Stmts, ¶ 44.) Plaintiffs file was given to another member of the state judicial branch for scheduling for a de novo trial, but it was never given a trial date. (Id. ¶ 45.) On December 1, 2008, Plaintiff, through his attorney, filed a request to have the case construed to have been nolled, but the request was never acted upon by the court. (Id. ¶ 46.) In September 2014, State's Attorney Turcotte nolled Plaintiffs case. (Id. ¶ 47.) Turcotte testified that after Plaintiffs request for a de novo trial, "[a] long period of time lapsed[, ]" and that when Plaintiffs file, "along with a number of other files for scheduling of... De Novo trials ... were brought to my attention, I reviewed the files and felt that it was not appropriate to prosecute those cases based upon the amount of time that had past, [sic] and I entered a nolle." (Ex. G (Turcotte Dep.) to Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. [Doc. # 154-9] at 31:1-10.) Turcotte did not notify Plaintiff or anyone else that he had nolled the cases. (Id. at 31:13-17.) Turcotte testified that he had acted on the files because the clerk "asked [him] to review them[.]" (Id. at 31:19-23.) Turcotte further testified that he "didn't decide the nolle on the merits of [Plaintiffs] case ... ...

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