Motorist Paul Miller filed a federal lawsuit against Sanilac County, Michigan sheriff’s department after he was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) despite being completely sober. The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit earlier this month ruled that his case should be tried by a jury.
On February 19, 2006, Miller had been driving home from a demolition derby at around midnight on a cold, icy evening. Miller drove through a stop sign, unable to stop because of the slick road conditions, as Deputy Sheriff Jim Wagester watched. Wagester pulled Miller over claiming that he had been driving 60 MPH without a seatbelt, that he failed to immediately pull over, that his eyes were “glassy” and that he “detect[ed] a slight odor of alcohol coming from [Miller's] breath.” Miller said that Wagester fabricated the charges.
After learning that Miller had been arrested once before for DUI, Wagester administered five standard field sobriety tests in the freezing weather, insisting that Miller failed four of them. Miller refused a breathalyzer test, saying he only trusted the accuracy of blood tests. Wagester responded by slamming Miller against his patrol car, handcuffing him and driving him to a hospital for the blood test. Wagester charged miller with: failure to use a seatbelt, no proof of registration, no proof of insurance, reckless driving, refusal to submit to a breath test, minor in possession, and 0.02 percent blood-alcohol-no-tolerance-law violation.
The lab eventually reported that Miller’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.00 and that he tested negative for narcotics. Although police dropped the charges, Miller sued for excessive force, false arrest and malicious prosecution.
The court of appeals threw out the malicious prosecution charge as they related to the civil infractions like failure to wear a seatbelt and refusing a breath test. Only criminal charges like DUI could be considered malicious prosecution, so the appeals court found that a jury should decide whether Wagester had probable cause to arrest to determine whether the criminal prosecution was malicious.
“The fact that Miller’s blood alcohol was found to be 0.00 percent casts doubt on Deputy Wagester’s claims that Miller smelled of alcohol and failed the field sobriety tests,” Judge Gilbert S Merritt Jr wrote for the majority. “Although Wagester’s claims, if believed, would constitute probable cause to arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, a jury could reasonably conclude, in light of the 0.00 percent blood alcohol result and Miller’s testimony, that Wagester was being untruthful generally about his observations and did not have probable cause to believe Miller was drinking. In light of the conflict in the evidence, the jury could conclude that Wagester was lying.”
The court also questioned the reckless driving charge because the icy conditions represented a mitigating circumstance. Because the reckless driving charge requires a showing of “wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property” the icy conditions create a factual question for the jury. The court found absolutely no evidence for Wagester’s filing of the minor in possession charge.
The court dismissed the claims against the county government and some of the excessive force claims but upheld Miller’s remaining points as fit for being decided by a jury.
View a copy of the decision in a 75k PDF file.