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Troopers must face suit from black motorists stopped 2 hours

September 28, 2018

A lawsuit against Indiana State Police troopers accused of unreasonably questioning two black motorists for more than two hours on the side of an interstate will continue after a federal judge rejected the troopers’ qualified immunity claims.

Indiana Southern District Court Judge Richard L. Young denied summary judgment to troopers Ryan Winters and Peter Stephan on Wednesday in Kenneth Nash et al. v. State of Indiana et al., 1:16-cv-02849. Kenneth Nash and his fiancée Tammy Williams, who are both black, sued the troopers after they were stopped on Interstate 65 near Lafayette in January 2016. Their lawsuit asserts a series of unreasonable search-and-seizure and false arrest claims.

At the time of the stop, Nash was driving a rented U-Haul that was hooked to a trailer carrying Williams’ 2004 Mercedes Benz. The two were traveling to Atlanta when they were pulled over at about 6:30 a.m. 

Winters and a trainee trooper claimed to have stopped the U-Haul after witnessing the trailer crossing the fog line multiple times, though the defendants deny this. According to Young’s Wednesday order, Winters became suspicious when he noticed the vehicle on the trailer was not weighted down with personal belongings.

After stopping the couple, Winters then approached Nash and asked if he had been drinking or on his cell phone, which the driver denied. The trooper then took Nash’s license and registration to his squad car for a few minutes before calling Nash to the car for questioning about his relationship with Williams, where they had stayed and whether they had been in a fight, according to Young’s order.

Winters questioned Nash for about 20 minutes before asking to search the U-Haul and trailer, a request Nash initially denied. However, after being presented with a consent-to-search form, both Nash and Williams signed the form, claiming they believed they had no choice.

Meanwhile, Stephan and another trooper arrived on the scene and began asking Nash questions similar to those posed by Winters, who at that point had begun questioning Williams. Winters posed similar questions to Williams, but also asked her about the clothes — many of which still had tags on them — that were discovered in the U-Haul. When Williams said she paid for the clothes with a credit card, Winters asked her to write down her full name, birthdate, Social Security number and last three addresses.

Then, upon learning that Williams worked in home health care, Winters informed her that home health care providers tended to steal pills, credit card information and identities. In all, Williams’ questioning lasted for about 40 minutes.

Winters then returned to questioning Nash and accused the couple of stealing the clothes, running a credit card scam and committing identity theft, Young’s order says. In the end, after roughly 2½ hours of questioning, Nash was given a warning ticket for unsafe lane movement.

In their ensuing lawsuit, Nash and Williams raised unreasonable search and seizure, false arrest and false imprisonment claims under the Fourth Amendment, Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution and the Indiana Tort Claims Act. Young denied summary judgment to Winters and Stephan on all counts, finding multiple genuine issues of material fact that defeated qualified immunity.

Specifically, the judge said there were disputes as to whether the troopers had reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop; whether the plaintiffs voluntarily consented to the search of the U-Haul; and whether the troopers had probable cause to arrest the motorists via the extended stop. 

“As noted in the court’s Fourth Amendment analysis, the entire premise of the stop — not to mention the lengthy detention in ISP squad cars over matters unrelated to the initial purpose of the stop — is in dispute,” Young wrote. “Accordingly, the court must find there is a genuine issue of fact on whether the police intrusion by Winters and Stephan was reasonable under the circumstances.”

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