Cover Story
U.S. District judge rules
Minnesota fatigue program violated Fourth Amendment
A gusty lawsuit, a dramaitc six-day trial and an extraordinary ruling – it all came down to truckers' rights.

By Jami Jones, senior editor

In late January,  U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank ruled that the Minnesota State Patrol’s use of CVSA Level III inspections to determine fatigue was a violation of truckers’ Fourth Amendment rights.

OOIDA and its member plaintiff, Stephen K. House, filed the lawsuit against the Minnesota State Patrol and individual officers on May 13, 2009, on behalf of truck drivers placed out of service after members of the patrol consulted a checklist and arrived at the conclusion the drivers were “fatigued.”

The court’s decision was twofold. It first ruled on the past conduct of the Minnesota State Patrol and its fatigue enforcement program. It also ordered mediation on the prospective or future of the state’s fatigue enforcement.

Judge Frank ruled that the Minnesota State Patrol’s past fatigue enforcement program violated plaintiff House’s Fourth Amendment rights when it expanded the scope of the Level III inspection.

“This is the very first decision that supports truckers’ constitutional rights in the inspection process,” said OOIDA President and CEO Jim Johnston.

The judge’s decision allows OOIDA and House to apply for attorney’s fees. The charges against the individual officers were dismissed with prejudice, which means the cases cannot be refiled. Johnston said that may be a point OOIDA would consider appealing, but further review of the ruling is in order before any decision will be made.

Reasonable articulable suspicion
Johnston said the decision not only sets limits on what enforcement can do in the course of an inspection, but also requires law enforcement to have “reasonable articulable suspicion” of fatigue before it can proceed with any sort of enforcement action.

“In layman’s terms, there has to be an obvious indication that the individual is too fatigued to continue driving. Not that he is just tired. Not that he is just sleepy. But that he is too fatigued or impaired to continue safely operating on the highway,” Johnston said.

During the six-day trial held in September, plaintiff House recounted for the court the May 10, 2008, incident in which he was placed out of service.

House was put out of service at the Red River Weigh Station, after it was decided he was fatigued following questioning by civilian Law Compliance Representatives Christopher Norton and James Ullmer. At no time was he ever told the purpose of the questions.

He testified that the pair asked him about his neck size and how many times he used the restroom at night, whether he had a television or computer in his cab, and if he had any Playboy magazines in his cab. He said both Norton and Ullmer used a checklist. After the inspection, the OOS order was issued.

“None of the observations made in House’s inspections – which include neck size, urination habits, presence of Playboy magazines, TVs, and computers in the cab – none of those factors satisfy reasonable articulable suspicion,” Paul Cullen Sr., of The Cullen Law Firm, told Land Line Magazine.

Clear message to other states
Beyond the attorney fees and the fact the Minnesota State Patrol can no longer enforce fatigue with its old methods, Judge Frank’s ruling doesn’t end there. The federal court’s ruling will affect fatigue enforcement around the country, according to Johnston.

“This sends a clear signal to other states that you don’t just go out and violate truckers’ rights,” Johnston said. “Even in a highly regulated industry, inspections are considered searches. Those subject to the searches must have a clear understanding of what’s expected of them, and there are limitations on the officer’s discretion during the search.”

In short, even though it’s a highly regulated industry, Johnston said that “does not give law enforcement the green light to go on a witch-hunt under the guise of an inspection.”

Johnston said the case goes far in shaping fatigue enforcement around the country and eliminating law enforcement’s ability to “punish” drivers on the roadside.

“They are supposed to be enforcing safety – not acting as judge, jury and executioner,” Johnston said. LL