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Officers let highly intoxicated driver slide

After making a citizen’s arrest of a drunk motorist, an Uber driver (and former cop) is arrested and charged with impersonating a police officer

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Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle were funny. This case isn’t.

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HUGHES V. GARCIA, 2024 WL 1952868 (5th Cir. 2024)

In so many ways, this case reminds me of a 1963 episode of The Andy Griffith Show in which garage mechanic Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors) makes a “citizen’s arrest” of Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts) after he witnesses Deputy Fife make an illegal U-turn. Deputy Fife then jails himself. Actor Jim Nabors may have had some law enforcement training as a child; his father was a local police officer in Alabama. The episode, “Citizen’s Arrest,” is considered one of the funniest in the Andy Griffith library.

Similarly, the court’s description in Hughes v. Garcia, quoted below, may also bring a chuckle. It certainly hints at the outcome (emphasis in original):

Austin Thompson Hughes is a good Samaritan. After 2:30 a.m., Hughes called 911 to report a pickup truck swerving violently across a four-lane highway in Houston. While Hughes was on the phone with emergency dispatchers, the drunk driver crashed. Still on the phone with 911, Hughes pulled behind the drunk driver and effectuated a citizen’s arrest in accordance with Texas law. But when police officers arrived at the scene, they let the drunk driver go and then arrested Good Samaritan Hughes. (Seriously.) Piling insanity on irrationality, the officers then charged Hughes with a felony for impersonating a peace officer. Hughes spent thousands of dollars defending against the frivolous criminal charges before the City of Houston dropped them. Then Hughes brought this § 1983 suit against the two officers who victimized him. The district court denied qualified immunity. We affirm. (Obviously.)

Hughes was a former police officer, now working as an Uber driver. With two passengers in his car, Hughes saw a pickup truck swerving erratically on the freeway. Hughes dialed 911 and followed the truck with his own vehicle flashers on. Hughes described the truck and his own vehicle to the dispatcher and reported the truck was swerving at high speed, hitting the concrete barriers on both sides of the highway and finally coming to a stop. In the background of the dispatch recording, Hughes’s two passengers can be heard confirming Hughes’s report.

When transferred to a second call-taker, Hughes stated: “I need to get out of the car because, I mean, they’re going to kill somebody.” Hughes got out of his car, walked up to the crashed truck, and saw that the driver was obviously intoxicated. Hughes took the driver’s keys, bottles of alcohol, and the driver’s license sitting in a cup holder. Meanwhile, another caller gave many of the same details to another 911 operator. Hughes yelled at the driver, Edgar Gomez, to stay in the truck.

While returning to his own vehicle, Hughes saw the intoxicated Gomez run into oncoming freeway traffic. Hughes “felt that the best and safest option would be to physically restrain the suspect,” so he “retrieved handcuffs from his Jeep and used them to temporarily detain the DWI Suspect.” Meanwhile, Hughes’s Uber passengers left with another driver. Just under 20 minutes later, Officers Few and Garcia arrived in response to the multiple 911 calls.

The officers put Gomez in the back of their car and instructed Hughes to meet them at a nearby gas station. Officer Garcia performed a horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN) sobriety test on Gomez, during which Gomez exhibited “six out of six factors” of intoxication. Gomez provided a written statement at the gas station. He wrote: “I had been drinking on night and had more than 7 beers. I was too drunk to drive …” Gomez referred to Hughes as “Jesse” and claimed Hughes had driven Gomez’s truck from a flea market where they had been drinking. The court also noted Gomez was “visibly intoxicated.” In addition to his erratic driving, Gomez smelled of alcohol, had glassy eyes and slurred speech, and was attempting to drink alcohol from bottles in his vehicle.

For reasons that none of the several federal judges — probably really smart people — could figure out, the officers released the intoxicated Gomez without any charges.

Officer Few wanted to verify whether Hughes’ Uber passengers had seen Gomez (and not Hughes) driving the truck. Because Uber drivers do not have the contact information for their riders, Hughes showed the officers his driver-side Uber app, which demonstrated he was indeed an Uber driver and Gomez was not telling the truth about Hughes driving Gomez’s truck. The officers released Hughes, but not for long.

Officer Few prepared an incident report following Gomez’s account. The report stated Hughes accused Gomez of fooling around with his wife (other than Gomez’s statement, there was no evidence that this ever happened and no evidence that Hughes had ever encountered Gomez before that night). The report had Hughes driving the pickup truck (despite the evidence to the contrary) and stated Hughes had been with Gomez at the flea market (according to the court, “there is no evidence of a flea market open in Houston at 2:00 a.m., much less a flea market that doubles as a bar where the drunk driver could drink more than 7 beers”). The officers’ own defense lawyer later called Gomez’s statements “crazy.” Officer Few also wrote that Hughes “told Gomez he was a police officer.”

Officer Few signed a probable cause affidavit seeking to charge Hughes with the felony of impersonating an officer. Early the next morning, Officers Few and Garcia went to Hughes’ home to arrest him. The court continued: “The record does not reveal, and again judicial imagination cannot fathom, why officers needed to trick an undressed Hughes into extending his arm through the cracked door so he could be forcibly arrested in his pajamas” — at 3:00 a.m., no less.

A few months later, the district attorney asked the state court to dismiss the charge, telling the court that “no probable cause existed” to support the arrest.

Hughes sued the officers, supervisors and the city. The officers petitioned the trial court to grant them qualified immunity. The trial court refused. As courts so very often note, qualified immunity protects “all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law” . After a detailed analysis of evidence of false statements and material omissions in the affidavit and stating that “the affidavit also added false details, beyond those in the drunk driver’s narrative,” the appellate court upheld the denial of qualified immunity.

Though it may have been little comfort for Hughes, the court of appeals analyzed state law applicable to citizen’s arrest and held Hughes acted properly in detaining Gomez. Indeed, he may well have saved Gomez from being killed by a speeding car on the freeway. The court ended its opinion as colorfully as it began:

It is unclear which part of this case is more amazing: (1) That officers refused to charge a severely intoxicated driver and instead brought felony charges against the good Samaritan who intervened to protect Houstonians; or (2) that the City of Houston continues to defend its officers’ conduct. Either way, the officers’ qualified immunity is denied.

Ouch. Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle were funny. This case isn’t. Tell the truth in reports and affidavits. Arrest drunk drivers. Enough said.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

Ken Wallentine is the chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.