• July 15, 2013
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Edina Police Officer Scott Thompson shows up at a car accident in Edina at about 10:40 p.m. on a Thursday night in April, 2011 and identifies one of the drivers in the accident as a drunk driver.  Another car pulls up.  It’s the apparently drunk driver’s mother.  The driver’s mother is also drunk.  The driver’s mother has a passenger in her car, Kathleen Meehan.  Ms. Meehan, apparently, is also drunk.  Ms. Meehan calls for her husband to pick her up.  But Mr. Meehan does not feel comfortable driving.  He, too, has been drinking.

Officer Thompson waits for five minutes or so and decides that Ms. Meehan does not have a ride home, that she is intoxicated, and therefore, he decides he will put her in the squad car and drive her to “Detox,” 10 miles away (to a decidedly less fancy part of town).

Under applicable law, Thompson had the discretion to just drive Ms. Meehan home, which was just a few blocks away from the scene of the accident.

Based on these circumstances, Kathleen Meehan brought claims against Officer Thompson for false imprisonment, battery, and a violation of 28 U.S.C. §1983 (a federal statute providing for civil remedies for deprivations of civil rights, a statute passed soon after the U.S. Civil War).  Should these claims be allowed to go forward to trial?

Yes.  Defendant’s motion for summary judgment was denied.  So unless the defendant settles this case, it may be up to a jury to decide whether Officer Thompson went overboard.  U.S. District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank (D. Minn.) recently held:

Construing the record in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, … there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether a reasonable officer in Defendant’s position would have believed that Plaintiff presented a threat to herself or others….A reasonable jury could find that Defendant’s decision to transport Plaintiff to detox, after waiting only a few minutes for her ride to arrive, was objectively unreasonable under the circumstances.

(There were also allegations (which Officer Thompson denied) that Thompson frisked Ms. Meehan in spite of the fact that he had no reasonable suspicion that she had been involved in any criminal wrong-doing.  And putting her in the squad car and taking her to detox are the allegations underlying the claim for false imprisonment.)

I do not envy the challenges faced by police officers.  Let’s assume for purposes of argument that a majority of reasonable police officers in similar circumstances would have just brought Ms. Meehan home.  It still seems a stretch to me to find Officer Thompson liable for depriving the Plaintiff of her constitutional rights.  Is there any hint that Officer Thompson had anything in mind the whole time other than the public (and Ms. Meehan’s) safety?  Is it possible that Officer Thompson thought that it was in Ms. Meehan’s best interest to bring her to treatment rather than just dropping her back at her home?  Maybe so? Maybe he was still wrong?

Maybe it is best to let a fact-finder decide after hearing all of the testimony and seeing all of the evidence.

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