Sprague v. Nally, 03-489.

Citation882 A.2d 1164
Case DateJuly 22, 2005
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

W.E. Whittington of Whittington Law Associates, P.L.L.C., Hanover, NH, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, and Eve Jacobs-Carnahan, Assistant Attorney General, Montpelier, for Defendants-Appellees.


¶ 1. REIBER, J.

In State v. Sprague, 2003 VT 20, ¶ 1, 175 Vt. 123, 824 A.2d 539, we held as a matter of state constitutional law that law enforcement officers must have a reasonable basis to believe that their safety or the safety of others is at risk, or that a crime has been committed, before ordering the driver to exit a lawfully stopped vehicle. We further held that the officer in that case lacked a reasonable basis for the exit order; that the defendant had not voluntarily consented to leave his vehicle; and that the illegal seizure tainted the defendant's later purported consent to a search of his person, vehicle, and home, thereby requiring suppression of the evidence seized. Id. ¶¶ 21-22, 30-34. Following our decision, Jonathan Sprague, the defendant in State v. Sprague, and his wife filed this civil action against the investigating officers for damages resulting from the stop and searches. The officers moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis of qualified immunity, asserting that they had not violated any clearly established federal law or state rights. The trial court granted the motion, and entered a judgment dismissing the complaint with prejudice. For the reasons set forth below, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

¶ 2. It is important at the outset to identify the factual basis of the trial court's ruling. When deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court's "inquiry focuses on the absence of any facts, reasonable factual inferences, and legal bases for recovery alleged in the complaint, attachments thereto, or to matters the court may judicially notice." Gilman v. Maine Mutual Fire Ins. Co., 2003 VT 55, ¶ 20, 175 Vt. 554, 830 A.2d 71 (mem.). The trial court here stated that, for purposes of the motion to dismiss, it was accepting the allegations in the complaint as true and also "accept[ing] as given the facts stated in [State v.] Sprague." Thus, although neither party appears to have formally requested it, the trial court in effect took judicial notice of the facts set forth in this Court's opinion in the criminal case, which, of course, involved the same underlying incident that gave rise to the civil action. See V.R.E. 201(c) ("A court may take judicial notice, whether requested or not.").

¶ 3. Sprague does not contend that the trial court improperly took judicial notice of the facts set forth in our prior opinion. Accordingly, he has waived any claim that the court erroneously relied on those facts in granting the motion to dismiss. See In re Hart, 167 Vt. 630, 631, 715 A.2d 640, 641 (1998) (mem.) (issues not raised on appeal are waived).2 We note, as well, that although Sprague made no formal request, he himself relied expressly in his complaint on a number of findings and conclusions from our opinion in Sprague. See State v. Longe, 170 Vt. 35, 40 n. *, 743 A.2d 569, 572 n. * (1999) (party may not predicate error on action that the party has induced). Finally, we note the many authorities holding that a trial or appellate court may properly take judicial notice of the facts set forth in a prior appellate opinion in a related case. See, e.g., Baltins v. James, 36 Cal.App.4th 1193, 42 Cal.Rptr.2d 896, 898 n. 3 (1995) (court in legal malpractice action stemming from earlier dissolution proceeding may take judicial notice of prior appellate opinion in the dissolution action); City of Caldwell v. Roark, 98 Idaho 897, 575 P.2d 495, 497 n. 1 (1978) (court may take judicial notice of facts set forth in prior opinion in related case); Bank of Mead v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 202 Neb. 403, 275 N.W.2d 822, 825 (1979) (trial court properly took judicial notice of, and entered findings of fact based on, two prior related decisions of state supreme court); Collins v. Collins, 898 P.2d 1316, 1318 (Okla.Ct.App.1995) (court "may take judicial notice of its own records and prior opinions in litigation interconnected with the appeal before it").

¶ 4. We turn, accordingly, to the question whether, on the facts thus established (and more fully described in the discussion below) the trial court correctly concluded that Sprague had failed to demonstrate a violation of clearly established law.3 We have summarized the doctrine of qualified immunity as follows:

Such immunity protects lower-level government employees from tort liability when they perform discretionary acts in good faith during the course of their employment and within the scope of their authority. Even in applying qualified official immunity to state tort law claims, we use the federal objective good faith standard to prevent exposing state employees to the distraction and expense of defending themselves in the courtroom. The outcome of the analysis depends on the objective reasonableness of the official's conduct in relation to settled, clearly-established law. Thus, if the official's conduct does not violate clearly-established rights of which a reasonable person would have known, the official is protected by qualified immunity from tort liability.

Cook v. Nelson, 167 Vt. 505, 509, 712 A.2d 382, 384 (1998) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

¶ 5. Sprague has alleged a federal civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and several state tort claims, based generally on the same underlying acts. Claims brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 must be grounded on facts that would establish a violation of federal law. Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Org., 441 U.S. 600, 617, 99 S.Ct. 1905, 60 L.Ed.2d 508 (1979); Billado v. Appel, 165 Vt. 482, 489, 687 A.2d 84, 89 (1996). In evaluating a claim of qualified immunity a court "must first determine whether the plaintiff has alleged the deprivation of an actual constitutional right at all, and if so, proceed to determine whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation." Conn v. Gabbert, 526 U.S. 286, 290, 119 S.Ct. 1292, 143 L.Ed.2d 399 (1999). "Clearly established" for purposes of qualified immunity means that "[t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987). Thus, if the official reasonably believes that his or her actions were lawful, the official receives immunity even if a court later determines that they were not. See Hunter v. Bryant, 502 U.S. 224, 229, 112 S.Ct. 534, 116 L.Ed.2d 589 (1991) (doctrine accommodates reasonable "mistaken judgments"); Long v. L'Esperance, 166 Vt. 566, 571, 701 A.2d 1048, 1052 (1997) (officer's reasonable, albeit mistaken judgment concerning existence of probable cause will not subject him to liability). Similarly, "if the official's conduct does not violate clearly-established rights of which a reasonable person would have known, the official is protected by qualified immunity from tort liability." Nelson, 167 Vt. at 509, 712 A.2d at 384.

¶ 6. We turn accordingly to a consideration of Sprague's specific factual claims, considered in light of the foregoing standards. We note at the outset, however, what Sprague does not contend. He does not seek to predicate liability upon the investigating officer's unwarranted directive to exit the vehicle. The reason is clear. As we explained in Sprague, federal law does not prohibit an exit order following a lawful traffic stop, and Vermont law, while suggestive of a contrary approach, was unsettled until our decision. 2003 VT 20, ¶¶ 13-14, 175 Vt. 123,824 A.2d 539. Therefore, the officer's conduct in effectively ordering Sprague from the vehicle was not violative of clearly established state or federal law.

¶ 7. Sprague's claims are predicated instead on a series of actions by the investigating officer after Sprague exited the vehicle. First, Sprague contends that the officer effected an unconstitutional seizure by ordering him to sit in the police cruiser without cause. As we noted in Sprague, the videotape and transcript of the exchange reveal that the officer stated, "you mind having a seat in my car while I check your license, please?," and that Sprague, in response, started walking toward the cruiser. Id. ¶ 2. Even interpreting the officer's statement as an order rather than a request to which Sprague voluntarily acquiesced, the facts do not establish a violation of clearly established law. Numerous federal decisions have held that a reasonable investigation of a traffic stop may include questioning the driver in a police patrol car. See, e.g., United States v. Hernandez, 93 F.3d 1493, 1499 (10th Cir.1996) (fact that questioning took place in patrol car did not transform it into illegal detention); United States v. Ramos, 42 F.3d 1160, 1163 (8th Cir.1994) (reasonable investigation includes asking for license and registration and brief questioning in patrol car); United States v. Rodriguez, 831 F.2d 162, 166 (7th Cir.1987) (brief questioning in patrol car may be part of normal investigative procedures). Although other courts have suggested that moving the driver to a patrol car for questioning requires some independent justification, see, e.g., United States v. Butler, 223 F.3d 368, 375 (6th Cir.2000), this position appears to be a minority view, and is certainly not "clearly established." A reasonable officer under the circumstances could have believed, therefore, that he was acting within his authority in questioning Sprague inside the cruiser.

¶ 8. Sprague next contends the officer conducted an unconstitutional search...

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