Trooper vindicated in traffic stop
By Karen Lee Ziner
The Providence Journal, February 5, 2010
A Boston federal appeals court has ruled that a Rhode Island state trooper was protected by 'qualified immunity' from a lawsuit alleging that he violated the civil rights of 14 Guatemalan nationals during a 2007 traffic stop that led to their detention by immigration officials because he could have reasonably believed that what he was doing was constitutional.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals for the First Circuit cited that immunity in affirming a lower courts dismissal of a 2008 lawsuit brought against state police by the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the driver and his 11 passengers.
The ACLU had alleged that Trooper Thomas Chabot engaged in racial profiling and violated the civil rights of the driver and passengers during the hour-long stop by asking their immigration status, twice patting down the driver, contacting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, then transporting the driver and his passengers to ICE.
The ACLU argued that the early morning stop on Route 95 after the driver changed lanes without using a turn signal, and subsequent detention 'were based solely on the ethnicity of the driver and passengers.'
U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lisi had ruled in 2008 that Chabot acted reasonably and with legal justification in all of his actions.
But the appeals court said it first considered 'the question of qualified immunity, which makes it unnecessary to determine whether Officer Chabot had reasonable suspicion to take these actions.'
'Because we find that Officer Chabot could reasonably have believed that he had sufficient facts to warrant first reasonable suspicion, and later, probable cause of immigration violations, we find that he is entitled to qualified immunity for all of the challenged actions with respect to the Act,' the appeals court wrote.
Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, who announced the decision Thursday, said, 'Todays decision affirms that Trooper Chabot did not overstep the boundaries of the law either in his performance of his professional duties during the traffic stop in Richmond or in escorting the van to immigration officials at ICE headquarters in Providence.
'This high-profile and sensitive case is now resolved, and I am pleased that the First Circuit has found that proper action was taken by the Rhode Island State Police and that there was no basis for any claim of constitutional violation.'
The Rhode Island ACLUs executive director, Steven Brown, said he found the decision 'discouraging' in that the court 'really didnt rule on the constitutional issues.' He called it an argument for passage of racial-profiling legislation.
'The court decision, by relying on the doctrine of qualified immunity to decide this case, has left open many questions about the validity of traffic stops and detentions like this one,' Brown said. 'Unfortunately, by failing to find the state police culpable, the decision, however unintentionally, can only encourage more racial profiling on Rhode Islands roads.'
He said he hopes the General Assembly 'will now act on legislation setting clear standards that will help reduce the long-standing racial disparities that exist in the state when it comes to stopping and searching motor vehicles.'