An off-duty Metropolitan Police Department detective’s act of "road rage" will cost her and the District $450,000, the D.C. Court of Appeals said in an opinion handed down today. According to the opinion, what started as a simple fender bender quickly escalated into a situation where a psychologist at Walter Reed Hospital was improperly arrested.
The case on appeal stems from an Oct. 22, 2004 incident in which D.C. Detective Barbara Rauf rear-ended Steven Tulin’s Porsche with her Honda while taking her son to school. According to the court’s 26-page opinion, the collision occurred after “some less than friendly looks and gestures by both drivers.”
After the collision, the opinion says, the two drivers had a “hostile interaction” in which both drivers were “extremely angry.” Tulin’s car suffered $3,500 in damage. Rauf testified at trial that she was cursing and using profanity because her “level of pissitivity” was fairly high.
She then placed two calls to the police operator, requesting assistance for an officer in trouble.
When Officer Leticia McKoy and Sergeant Johnnie Lee McLean and then-Sergeant Jackson (the opinion doesn’t list a first name for Jackson) arrived on the scene, the opinion says, Rauf told them that Tulin had been aggressively stopping and starting his car and that it was his driving that caused the accident.
After interviewing Rauf, McKoy cleared her to leave and continue taking her son to school. As Rauf left, she said to McKoy, “That’s an automatic lock-up, isn’t it?” Tulin was then handcuffed and arrested. (In a footnote, the opinion notes that Rauf’s husband was a captain in the same police district where McKoy was based.)
Tulin spent 14 hours in jail and was charged with reckless driving. He was later found not guilty.
On Oct. 25, 2005, Tulin filed suit against Rauf and McKoy for false arrest, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. He also sued the District for negligent supervision. A jury cleared McKoy of all Tulin’s allegations. But it found Rauf liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress and the District liable for negligently supervising McKoy. The jury awarded Tulin $450,000.
On appeal, Holly Johnson, assistant attorney general for the District of Columbia, argued that the jury issued an inconsistent verdict by ruling in McKoy’s favor on all of the allegations leveled against her yet still holding the District liable for negligently supervising her.
Not so, says the opinion, which was written by Senior Judge Frank Schwelb and joined by Judge John Fisher and Senior Judge James Belson. The opinion says that the arrest was improper for a number of reasons, including the fact that reckless driving is not an arrestable offense if it isn’t witnessed by an officer, and because neither McLean nor Jackson asked Rauf how fast she was going or how far her car was from Tulin’s car prior to the accident.
During what the opinion dubs a “withering” cross examination of McLean, Tulin’s attorney Gregory Lattimer, a Washington-based solo practitioner, was able to show that “Sergeant McLean and Sergeant Jackson authorized Mr. Tulin’s warrantless arrest, which could be lawful only because Detective Rauf, the driver who had run into the car in front of her, was a police officer and was present when the accident occurred.”
Johnson also argued that Rauf shouldn’t be liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress because she did not arrest Tulin and therefore didn’t inflict the emotional distress.
That argument failed to convince the three judges, who determined that Rauf’s behavior, including the use of “foul and profane” language in front of her 9-year-old son, could be determined by a reasonable jury to have been intended to cause emotional distress.
The appeals court affirmed the D.C. Superior Court opinion in full.
Lattimer, Tulin’s lawyer, said in an interview, “My client has fretted and worried about this case, but he didn’t want to let it go. I hope this opinion serves as a warning to police officers that when you’re out there on the street you should act like a person and treat everyone else as though they are people as well.”