New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

WOODS v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK, #2007-013-510, Claim No. 103966


Case Information

Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :

Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):

Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant’s attorney:
Defendant’s attorney:
Attorney General of the State of New York
BY: THOMAS G. RAMSAY, ESQ.Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
August , 2007

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


Late in the evening of December 23, 2000 into the first hours of December 24, 2000, James Swails was chauffeuring his daughter, Claimant Shantel Swails, and his granddaughter, Claimant LaToya Woods, as well as two males, one, Jabari Bradwell, who testified at trial, and one, Alex McClary, who did not. Mr. Swails, having picked up the four youths at a movie theater, was driving westerly on Route 104 in Rochester, heading to his daughter’s home in Greece, and driving a 1984 Saab owned by her. His manner of driving, i.e., changing lanes twice without using a signal, drew the attention of State Police troopers who proceeded to follow the older model Saab, and, as a matter of course, “ran” or called in the license plate number.

It came back as a “hit” as a stolen vehicle. The troopers turned on their flashing lights and followed the Swails’ vehicle for what was described as “quite a distance,” ultimately using the siren. The vehicle went on to an exit or off ramp, going slowly but not coming to a prompt stop, and then came to a near stop straddling the shoulder and the right lane of traffic. The state troopers approached the vehicle cautiously, and maneuvered in such a fashion that the front passenger side of the troopers’ vehicle was “blocking” the Saab. The Saab continued to “roll” slightly, and as Trooper Christopher Neidert approached the vehicle on foot, he yelled several things, including turn off the car, put it in park, and the like. The Saab continued to roll[1] in a manner that led Trooper Michael Turton to fear that the vehicle might strike his partner. Trooper Turton then utilized a large metal flashlight to smash the driver’s door window, and attempted to reach inside to the emergency brake or shift lever to halt the vehicle’s progress. He was unsuccessful, and the Saab came to rest at or near the front of the police vehicle. There was no testimony or evidence of any other damage to either vehicle and that is not an issue herein.

Mr. Swails testified that he was having trouble bringing the vehicle to a stop because it had a standard transmission, implying his lesser competence with such transmission. Frankly that implication rings somewhat hollow because he had been entrusted by his daughter, and had accepted, the responsibility of transporting four youths in a standard transmission vehicle. His manner of driving and difficulty in stopping the vehicle was more likely related to his consumption of alcohol that day which, as Mr. Swails testified at trial, had started that morning and had continued.

Trooper Turton then extricated Mr. Swails from the vehicle and he was escorted to the rear of the troopers’ vehicle where he was frisked and handcuffed by Trooper Neidert and placed under arrest. No weapon or contraband, except for a pipe used to smoke crack cocaine, was discovered during the search/frisk.

The two boys were next to exit the vehicle and were frisked and placed on the railing abutting the highway.[2] The two named Claimants then exited the vehicle and were also frisked/ searched and placed on the same railing. Each Claimant was handcuffed to one of the boys as they sat on the railing. Before continuing with the narrative of the events that evening, the claims before me relate to the propriety of the search of the two young women, both minors at the time of the incident, and whether the male state trooper who conducted the search/pat frisks “made unwanted physical contact with [their bodies] including... breasts and groin area.” A claim is also asserted for “wrongful imprisonment” for the period of time, alleged to be approximately 45 minutes, that the Claimants (no claim is made on behalf of either of the two males identically detained) were made to remain handcuffed along the side of the road. The trial of these claims was bifurcated, and this decision addresses solely the issues of the Defendant’s liability.

Before addressing in greater detail the detention and searches in question, I shall conclude the events of that evening. No weapons or other contraband was discovered on any of the four youths. While there were testimonial conflicts as to the length of time the four young people remained outside in the cold weather of that December evening, the four of them were all transported by other troopers in a second state vehicle to the home of the mother of LaToya Woods, rather than to Greece, Mr. Swails’ originally intended destination. There was no one else at that residence at that time, but Ms. Woods had a key to the premises and the four of them went inside and shortly thereafter her mother arrived. While Claimants raise claims for damages for wrongfully being detained and for unwanted physical contact, they make no claims sounding in “wrongful transportation” to the residence in the City of Rochester rather than to Greece, and a stipulation to that effect was placed on the record.

With respect to the arrest of Mr. Swails, and the “stolen” vehicle, it appears without dispute that this vehicle had previously been reported stolen on or about October 27, 2000, by its owner, Melissa Swails, who resided in Greece (Defendant’s Exhibit A). It also appears undisputed that the vehicle had thereafter been recovered, and that the police had been so informed, but the stolen vehicle report had never been cancelled. So even though the computer “hit” referenced a stolen vehicle, the vehicle was indeed not stolen and it was being driven with the permission of the owner. While Mr. Swails was arrested and charged with possession of stolen property (the car) and driving while intoxicated, all charges against him were ultimately dismissed. There is no issue before me with respect to the propriety of stopping the vehicle by the troopers that evening.

Claimant Shantel Swails is Mr. Swails’ daughter and the aunt of Claimant LaToya Woods. She testified that she was directed to leave the automobile and that she was frisked from behind by a male trooper. She asked the trooper if there was a female officer on duty who could frisk her. He allegedly said nothing, but she remembered that she saw a female officer present at that time. Ms. Swails alleges that she was placed against the car with the male trooper behind her. He conducted the frisk by placing his hands under her coat, touching her breasts and inner thighs by her vagina during the course of this frisk. She was 14 years old at that time, and testified that she felt very uncomfortable. She was handcuffed to Alex McClary and they were directed to sit on the railing, where they remained “for a while.” Ms. Swails testified that they were taken to the house of her sister Tanya Wright (Ms. Wright is the mother of LaToya Woods) at 446 Flower City Park in Rochester. Shortly thereafter Ms. Wright arrived and was told what had happened, and Ms. Swails’ mother was called. Ms. Swails cried and was continuing to cry as she told her mother about the frisk and the alleged impropriety of the troopers.

On cross-examination she testified that she was not sure which trooper had searched her, that the frisk took, in her estimation, from one to two minutes, and then she was placed on the guide rail. In her deposition testimony she noted that the trooper had asked “Can you please exit the vehicle?” She testified that she was not sure how many police officers were at the scene, recalling that there was a second police vehicle present at the time of the frisk, and specifically remembered that at least one of the state troopers was wearing an orange jacket.

Jabari Bradwell testified about the incident, albeit somewhat differently. He recalled that the troopers stopped the car, busted the window, pulled out their guns, “snatched” the father out of the car and “grabbed” the boys out of the car. He was searched and handcuffed. He noted that a trooper searched the girls “like they were men,” including their private parts. He recalled that the girls were wearing “big coats” which, in contrast to Ms. Swails’ testimony, they took off and hung on the railing. He observed only two troopers present at the time, and thought that perhaps two officers performed the searches, and observed all the searches as the four youths were standing next to one another. He was handcuffed on one side to LaToya Woods. His recollection was that other police officers arrived, but only after the searches had been completed. They remained outside for a “long time” and when asked by the officers where they wanted to go, they said to LaToya’s house, which is the location to which they were taken.

Claimant LaToya Woods testified about the incident, describing the stopping of the vehicle, much yelling by the troopers, and her grandfather being removed, followed by Mr. Bradwell, who was searched first. She recalled that she was the next person out of the vehicle, as demanded by the trooper, placed on the trunk of the car, with her hands on the trunk. She was searched by a male trooper, who touched her chest, moved his hands down her side to the inside of her thighs and touched her vagina. Her left hand was then handcuffed to Mr. Bradwell’s right hand as they sat by the guide rail. She was upset and crying, estimating that she remained outside for about 45 minutes. She also recalled that there was a female officer present at the scene at the time of the search, but it was conducted by a male. Alex McClary, the other young man, was next removed from the vehicle and searched, followed by Shantel Swails, who was similarly searched. The last two were also handcuffed together and placed on the rail. After a while the four youths were all placed in the back seat of a second State Police vehicle and transported to LaToya’s home where she used her key to enter the premises. Her mother arrived thereafter. Ms. Woods was crying hysterically and was very upset. She similarly recalled that the trooper was wearing an orange jacket. She did not recall either of the girls removing their coats.

Trooper Christopher Neidert described the incident in question. At about 12:10 a.m. on December 24, 2000 he observed the Saab change lanes without a signal and came to learn that the vehicle was listed as stolen. He and Trooper Turton followed the Saab traveling westward on Route 104, having activated their lights, for “quite a distance.” He acknowledged drawing his weapon as he approached the vehicle because this was a “felony stop.” The car slowed but had not fully stopped rolling, so he yelled for the driver to stop the vehicle. After the troopers’ car was maneuvered in front of the Saab and Trooper Turton smashed the driver’s window, it finally came to a stop. He then removed Mr. Swails, who was verbally abusive and smelled of alcoholic beverages. Trooper Neidert searched Mr. Swails, took custody of him, and placed him in the rear of the troopers’ vehicle.

It was Trooper Neidert’s recollection that additional police officers arrived after Mr. Swails was taken into custody. Since he was primarily focused on Mr. Swails, he believed that Trooper Turton took the four passengers into custody, but was uncertain whether there was any additional assistance at that time. He recalled two other male police officers, one from Rochester and one from Irondequoit, arriving around this time, and did not recall any female officers being present. He testified that he was wearing his gray uniform with a purple tie. He was not wearing an orange jacket, which is paper thin, and is only worn by state troopers in the summertime if it is raining. He and Trooper Turton waited until a tow truck arrived to secure the Saab, and then transported Mr. Swails back to the State Police barracks. By that time the four youths had already been placed in the back of a second State Police vehicle and had left the scene. Trooper Neidert testified unhesitatingly that the entire incident, from the stop of the Saab to the departure from the scene, lasted 27 minutes.

He described the reasons for searching the passengers involved in a felony stop of a stolen vehicle, not knowing whether there might be weapons, outstanding warrants, whether the vehicle might have been used in the commission of a crime, etc. He also described the protocols to be utilized when a male trooper searches or pat frisks a female, specifically using the back of the hands to touch the breast area, around the sides, and the front and rear pockets, specifically to avoid the groping of any female. Trooper Neidert did not see any of the passengers being searched, as his responsibility was Mr. Swails.

Trooper Michael Turton also described his uniform that evening, gray uniform with black piping and a purple tie. He also denied wearing an orange jacket. After determining that the Saab was reported as a stolen vehicle, he recalled having first utilized his emergency lights. Although the Saab was beginning to slow down, he activated his siren and it then started to come to a stop. He was driving the state vehicle and maneuvered it toward the front of the Saab, more or less blocking it, exited the vehicle and approached on foot. The Saab was still rolling forward, and he felt that Trooper Neidert, already on foot, might be at risk. He used his flashlight to smash the driver’s window to reach in and try to bring the vehicle to a stop, which it eventually did without his help. Mr. Swails was removed and escorted to the rear of the Saab. He was searched by Trooper Neidert who handcuffed him and placed him in the troopers’ vehicle.

Trooper Turton then asked the occupants to exit the vehicle, one at a time. There was full compliance by the passengers without any resistance or objection. He used two sets of handcuffs, pairing one male with one female and having them sit on the guide rail to maintain custody until the troopers could ascertain what was going on, so that they would not leave before that was determined, and for their own safety so that they would not wander onto this limited access highway and possibly be injured.

At trial Trooper Turton did not have a specific recollection of having pat frisked the four youths, but it generally would have been indicated for the protection of the state troopers, for case continuity and in the event of frivolous lawsuits.[3] He recalled no complaints or objections from any of the four youths. He also described the protocols for male troopers pat frisking females, permitting the use of the backs of their hands for intimate areas. He testified that there were no female officers present at the time of the removal of the passengers from the Saab. Trooper Turton testified that the four passengers remained on the guide rail for approximately five minutes before they were placed, at his request, in the back of the Irondequoit police vehicle at the scene. He also measured the duration of the entire incident as being 27 minutes.

Trooper Turton did testify that “we generally don’t search females unless we have another female available.” Although asked if that was a policy of the State Police, Trooper Turton responded that ideally a female officer would search a female, but that in this case that was not an available option, and in any event, he did not specifically recall having conducted any of the four searches. At no time were the passengers under arrest and Trooper Turton had no interest in keeping them in custody any longer than was necessary.

There were numerous testimonial discrepancies. Both Claimants said there was a female officer present at the scene at the time of the frisks, but that was disputed by the troopers. Mr. Bradwell, who thought that perhaps two officers did the frisking, was not asked about nor did he volunteer that any female officers were at the scene. In any event, there was no other independent testimonial or documentary support for that proposition. Both Claimants described the troopers as wearing orange jackets. Both troopers testified that they wore their gray uniforms with ties and no jackets, and certainly not orange ones. Mr. Bradwell was not asked about the uniform colors. Both Claimants thought they were outside for 45 minutes to one hour. Both troopers fixed the duration of the entire incident at 27 minutes. Both Claimants testified that they were searched beneath their coats, while Mr. Bradwell said that the frisks took place after their coats were removed and hung on the guide rail.

These clouded recollections and inconclusive details demonstrate, inter alia, the stresses of the moment during the stop, arrest and search of the four youths, the lack of attention to details during the events and the passage of time.

Contrary to Claimants’ bold assertion that “there is no dispute that State Police rules and practice is that its male officers do not search females, and that a female officer has to be brought in” there was absolutely no testimonial or documentary support for such a finding. Trooper Turton’s acknowledgment that “we generally don’t search females unless we have another female available,” hardly qualifies as support. I accept both troopers’ testimony regarding the protocols for a male searching a female, the very existence of such protocols alone undermining Claimants’ unsubstantiated and wishful thinking.

The detention of the Claimants and the pat frisk of them are somewhat intertwined. In dissecting the incident that night, there is no question that the stop of the vehicle was not improper, albeit acknowledging that there had been an earlier report that the stolen vehicle had been recovered. Nonetheless, the stop was justified because there was an active stolen vehicle report on the Saab, and the removal of the Claimants and the two boys from that vehicle (see People v Robinson, 97 NY2d 341) was also justified.

Under the circumstances extant, I find that the temporary detention of the four passengers, securing them by handcuffs and seating them on the guide rail along the side of the highway does not represent an overbearing intrusion of police powers. The troopers were investigating a stolen vehicle in which the driver did not immediately respond to police signals to pull off the road and come to a stop, and who appeared to have consumed alcoholic beverages. I find that it was not unreasonable to conduct a pat frisk of the passengers because of the actions of the driver driving a stolen vehicle (see Matter of Jay B., 240 AD2d 488), and, inter alia, for purposes of officer safety because these youths would require a ride in a police vehicle (see People v Gamble, 210 AD2d 903). The Claimants and the boys were too young to drive, and even if they had not been, the vehicle was considered to be stolen and it obviously had to be secured by the authorities. Since all the youths were at the edge of a limited-access highway, and were to be transported home in a police vehicle, and there was only one police vehicle there at first, I do not find that the temporary detention of Claimants was improper or actionable. I also find that the period of time in question was not the 45 minutes testified to by the Claimants, but rather the more accurate and precise measurement of 27 minutes as testified to by both troopers, and was reasonable under the circumstances. The causes of action sounding in wrongful imprisonment are dismissed.

The allegations concerning unwanted physical contact and the impropriety of the pat frisks of both Claimants are similarly dismissed. While both Claimants may have felt physically violated, and testified credibly about their upset and crying when describing the events to their mothers, it is likely that the obviously stressful situation when the vehicle was stopped, the driver’s window smashed, guns drawn, with their father/grandfather being forcibly removed from the car and the searches and handcuffing of the four youths, as well as the passage of time, allowed for an embellishment of the physical contact. Neither Claimant had been searched by police before this event, and thus any touching by the trooper, even with the back of his hands near intimate areas, was likely perceived as groping. While the searches surely were perceived as unwanted physical contact, nothing before me comes close to establishing by a preponderance of the credible evidence that there was any impropriety or wrongful touching in either search.

Accordingly, both claims must be, and hereby are, dismissed.

All motions not heretofore ruled upon are now denied.


August , 2007
Rochester, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[1]. This description is not meant to imply that there was any evasiveness on the part of Mr. Swails, perhaps more aptly described as a failure to promptly respond to overt signals from the troopers.
[2]. Each of three witnesses for Claimants and one trooper described a slightly different sequence of the four passengers exiting the vehicle. The differences were not probative.
[3]. The latter two reasons seem somewhat skeptical and were not explained. The first reason, particularly as the youths were to be transported in the rear of the police vehicle, is realistic and plausible.