Joliet Police Officers Win Summary Judgement In Suit Over Traffic Stop

April 20, 2020

Several years ago, three City of Joliet police officers stopped a driver for having a broken tail light, wrote him a ticket for that infraction and another for an open bottle of vodka, and towed the car because of the open alcohol. The driver later filed a ten-count, thirty-page federal civil rights lawsuit against the officers, the City of Joliet, and its Chief of Police. Last week, U.S. District Judge Sarah Ellis granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on all four remaining counts (six counts had been dismissed earlier in the litigation). Hudson v. Zettergren, et al.

The driver’s first remaining claim alleged First Amendment retaliation, that the officers stopped and searched his car in retaliation for his past civil rights suits against the City of Joliet. But the driver admitted that he had never seen these officers before the stop. The officers similarly testified that they had not seen the driver before and did not know of his prior suits. Thus, Judge Ellis found the driver had no evidence that his other suits motivated the officers’ actions and dismissed this claim.

Next, the driver had alleged an unlawful search of his car. But it was undisputed that the officers learned immediately after the stop that Hudson’s passenger was on parole, a fact they believed allowed them to automatically search the car. Judge Ellis noted that there was some ambiguity as to whether their right to conduct such a search depended on who owned the car. But precisely because the law was not clear on that point, the officers were at a minimum entitled to qualified immunity, and this claim was dismissed.

The driver’s third claim was against the City of Joliet for an unwritten policy of allowing officers to engage in unconstitutional searches and seizures. But Hudson’s only evidence of such a “policy” was his own experience, which the Seventh Circuit has repeatedly held to be inadequate to establish a city-wide policy, so this claim was dismissed. The driver’s last remaining claim sought a permanent injunction against the City’s towing ordinance. Judge Ellis dismissed this claim for lack of jurisdiction, because the driver has since moved and presented no evidence that he would be subject to the ordinance in the future.

As an additional note, this driver had a long history of suing the City and obtaining nuisance value settlements. This time, the city took a stand on principle, won, and likely deterred the driver from filing future suits in hopes of a quick settlement. Mike Bersani and David Mathues represented the defendants.

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