A woman who fought off felony vehicular homicide charges after successfully arguing that Washington State Patrol troopers made false statements to obtain search warrants is now suing the state agency in federal court.
Melissa A. Paul, 29, represented by civil rights attorneys William Maxey – brother of Bevan Maxey – and City Councilman Breean Beggs, filed the civil lawsuit in February in Spokane County Superior Court. It was moved last week to U.S. District Court in Spokane.
The suit alleges Sgt. Scott Davis and Troopers Joseph Leibrecht and Robert Spencer lied in reports that ultimately led to Paul’s three-month stint behind bars, which ended only after she was able to post a $30,000 bond – reduced from an initial amount of $150,000. In addition to suing for damages, she’s alleging the troopers violated her Fourth Amendment right through false imprisonment and malicious prosecution.
“This case is just a follow-up for her,” said Beggs. “She spent three months in jail. Legally, she shouldn’t have. She’s looking for compensation for that.”
The criminal charges against Paul were dropped in December 2017 – 11 months after she was first arrested – when attorneys learned the extent of the botched investigation due to dash cam video of the troopers’ traffic stop. Troopers wrote in warrant applications and a probable cause affidavit that Paul showed signs of intoxication after the deadly collision, however, dash cam video obtained by her defense attorney showed otherwise.
In their response filed April 24, the troopers, through their attorney Frieda Zimmerman, assistant attorney general at the Washington State Attorney General’s office in Spokane, generally denied the lawsuit’s claims, saying they disagreed that there were “no signs of impairment.”
Zimmerman also filed a counter claim, alleging that Paul’s lawsuit was filed with “knowledge” that it was “unfounded, malicious and without probable cause.” Efforts to reach Zimmerman on Tuesday went unanswered.
The case against Paul began at about 4 a.m., Jan. 1, 2017, in the midst of a snowstorm, when her 2004 Toyota 4Runner drove on the shoulder of westbound U.S. Highway 2 near Flint Road, striking 44-year-old Ty M. Olds, who was either riding or walking next to a bicycle.
The collision forced Olds’ body through the windshield, and he was later declared dead at the scene.
A forensic toxicology report would later show that Olds, who had a felony record, had an “extremely high” amount of meth in his system, according to the lawsuit. It is unknown why he was riding or walking with a bicycle at 4 a.m.
Trooper Leibrecht, first to respond to the scene at about 4:40 a.m., according to the lawsuit, “thought he might have smelled alcohol in the vehicle but is not sure where it was coming from.” Also inside the SUV was passenger Stephan A. Goodwin, who told troopers he was drinking and Paul was his designated driver. He also admitted to hiding a digital scale, often used for drugs, on top of the vehicle’s front tire.
Between 4:54 a.m. and 5:01 a.m., the lawsuit alleges, Leibrecht ordered Paul to undergo a field sobriety test, including a so-called horizontal gaze nystagmus, and a walk-and-turn test, which Paul passed.
“I do not see impairment,” Leibrecht said on video, according to the suit. “No obvious signs of impairment was observed.”
At about 5:07 a.m., Trooper Spencer put Paul into a patrol car to “see if he could smell alcohol,” but he couldn’t, the lawsuit says. Meanwhile, Leibrecht made a phone call, in which he said the sobriety test was satisfactory and he “was not going to proceed further.”
However, at around 6 a.m. Davis arrived, according to the lawsuit, and instructed Spencer to perform another field sobriety test. In each instance, Paul missed a step in the “walk-and-turn” test, but still passed.
The lawsuit says the troopers again discussed the issue of impairment. One of them said “she nailed the walk-and-turn” and “I don’t know how I am going to get a warrant.”
Then without asking for permission, the troopers had her blow into a portable breath test, which showed a blood-alcohol level of 0.067, below the legal limit of 0.08.
Sgt. Davis then “instructed Trooper Spencer to apply for a blood warrant,” the lawsuit says. The affidavit was signed by Superior Court Judge Annette Plese under the understanding that Paul “made errors on the Walk and Turn and the One Leg Stand” test, despite passing two separate tests.
“The video does not show errors,” the lawsuit says. “The affidavit does not reflect Trooper Leibrecht’s belief, as clearly stated in the video, that Ms. Paul had passed and performed the (field sobriety tests) satisfactorily.”
The lawsuit goes on to say that troopers omitted evidence that neither trooper could smell alcohol on Paul, and that subsequent discussion was skeptical that they could even apply for a warrant. Those errors were included in a probable cause affidavit, a document used in court to justify her arrest.
Paul filed a motion to dismiss the case in November 2017, and Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Katherine McNulty did not object. Superior Court Judge James Triplet dismissed the case on Dec. 19 of that year.
“The prosecutor agreed that there wasn’t probable cause for her arrest,” Beggs said. “And therefore the three months she shouldn’t have stayed in jail.”
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