SPECIAL REPORT: Court enjoins Minnesota State Patrol from violating truckers' rights

By Jami Jones, senior editor | 9/21/2011

Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2011 – Truckers’ Constitutional rights came out the big winner in the judge’s final order in the OOIDA lawsuit against the Minnesota State Patrol and its so-called fatigue enforcement program.

U.S. District Court Judge Donovan W. Frank issued his final order for declaratory relief, injunction and entry of judgment in favor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and its member plaintiff Stephen K. House on Wednesday, Sept. 21.

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.”

Judge Frank ruled on Jan. 28 in favor of truckers’ Fourth Amendment Rights and ruled that the OOIDA and House were entitled to declaratory and injunctive relief.

That meant the plaintiffs were entitled to an order of the court instructing the defendants how they must change their practices in the future in order to not repeat their violations of the U.S. Constitution. But instead of immediately issuing such an injunction, the court ordered the parties to enter mediation to try to agree upon the appropriate injunction.

The parties met and conferred several times in the late winter and early spring, but were unable to reach such an agreement.

Judge Frank’s order marks the final resolution of the case since an agreement was not reached.

The order enjoins the state patrol from violating the Fourth Amendment Rights of House and members of OOIDA and from modifying the current General Order that governs the fatigue enforcement program.

However, the court’s order sets concrete limits on any fatigue enforcement actions conducted by the state patrol so as to protect truckers’ Constitutional rights.

"We are pleased for the members of the Association and for all truckers," said OOIDA President and CEO Jim Johnston. "This is a decision that affects the state of Minnesota, but the judge indicated his wish that this set a precedent in other states. And we will certainly use this decision as a precedent for other actions we take in other states."

Judge Frank ruled that state patrol officers are to “observe drivers for signs of impairment” from fatigue but cannot expand the inspection unless they have “reasonable articulable suspicion that the driver may be impaired.”

Then and only then can the patrol officers ask questions that “must be reasonably related to whether the driver can safely operate the vehicle at the time.” He also ordered that the questions cannot be “untruthful or misleading statements” and ordered that “drivers are to be told the purpose of the questions if they inquire.” Judge Frank ordered that drivers “are not required to answer the questions.”

“Lest we forget, during plaintiff Stephen K. House’s detention back on May 10, 2008, the questions he was asked included, but were not limited to, such subjects as neck size, whether he had Playboy magazines in his truck, how many times he opened his eyes at night when his wife was driving, whether he had a television and books in his sleeper berth, and the adequacy of the size of the sleeper berth,” Judge Frank wrote in the Sept. 21 decision.

“Such inquiries have little to do with the determination of fatigue, except in rare circumstances.”

To further drive home this point, he wrote, “if state troopers … use the so-called medical condition and sleep distraction criteria in their evaluation of fatigue and other illness issues, the MSP is destined to be involved in more litigation.”

“Essentially, the judge enjoined the state from going forward with their past practices and specifically excluded their check list and the questions they were asking,” Johnston said.

The final order also states that the state patrol must establish probable cause that due to fatigue or illness, the driver would be an “imminent risk to public safety” if continuing to drive. Only then can the driver be declared out of service and a citation issued.

The state of Minnesota currently has a General Order that governs fatigue enforcement, which could have been changed at any point. Judge Frank’s decision restricts the state from modifying the General Order.

Copies of Judge Frank’s decision are to be posted to the state patrol’s website; at all officer locations where commercial vehicle enforcement conducts business; emailed to all current, new and future employees involved in commercial vehicle enforcement; and at all locations accessible to drivers where inspections are conducted.

The court retains continuing jurisdiction over this matter for two years.

The final bit of business facing OOIDA and member plaintiff House in the court case is an order from the judge directing them to file a bill of costs and motion for attorney fees.

OOIDA’s legal counsel Paul Cullen Sr. of The Cullen Law Firm, Washington, DC, said Wednesday he expects the Association to receive a substantial award of attorneys fees – substantial enough to deter other states from engaging in behavior that violates truckers’ Constitutional rights.

“It sends a strong message to other states to examine their own policies,” said Cullen, "and that it could be costly if those policies go further than they should."

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