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Polson police officers violated veteran's civil rights during traffic stop, lawsuit claims

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A Florence resident is suing three Polson police officers in federal court, claiming they violated his civil rights during a traffic stop.

Peter Vasquez’s amended complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, says that late on the night of March 4, Officer Cody Doyle pulled him over in downtown Polson for failing to properly use a turn signal. The complaint says that Doyle repeatedly asked Vasquez where he was going; Vasquez refused to answer, and the situation grew more and more tense until “Mr. Vasquez politely stated that the officer ‘has to conduct his business within the scope of the stop so either please conduct your business or permit me to go.’”

“At that point,” the complaint continues, “Officer Doyle’s whole demeanor changed he replied with a smug ‘ok’ and he immediately in a John Wayne style- false bravado attitude attempted to pivot the stop in a retaliatory manner to a DUI investigation … until Mr. Vasquez asserted his right by informing the Officer that he must either conduct his official business or release him.”

Doyle, soon joined by officer Aaron Sutton, proceeded to instruct Vasquez to step out of the car and submit to a field sobriety test. Vasquez remained silent, and Doyle allegedly “forcefully placed Mr. Vasquez under arrest and seized his vehicle without any type of probable cause.”

“Mr. Vasquez was then transported to the Lake County jail where he was incarcerated for a violation of absolutely no law and released approximately 4 hours after the initial stop,” the complaint says, adding that his blood alcohol content was tested at 0.00 while in jail.

Vasquez’s complaint includes a March 19 letter of apology from Polson Police Chief Wade Nash, saying he viewed Vasquez’s cell phone video of the encounter. “I know that the stop was within the scope of Montana Law,” he wrote. “However, I would not want to be stopped for the same offense and relay [sic] this information to my officers.”

Nash wrote that the citations associated with the stop had been dismissed, he had paid all fees associated with the vehicle impoundment and returned Vasquez’s New York driver’s license.

Nonetheless, in August Vasquez sued Nash, Doyle and Sutton in U.S. District Court, arguing that the officers’ actions had violated his civil rights and seeking $100,000 in economic damages, another $150,000 in punitive damages, punishment for the officers involved and legal fees.

“I was only in jail because I chose to exercise my rights to remain silent,” Vasquez said in a phone interview. He described himself as a 100 percent disabled Army veteran who served in Iraq, and his complaint said the experience required him to seek medical treatment and aggravated his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In their answer to Vasquez’s amended complaint, the defendants admitted to most of the factual details of the encounter, but denied Vasquez’s inferences and characterizations — for instance, that Doyle’s “sole focus was on forcing answers out of Mr. Vasquez or to punish him for not answering,” or that he had experienced physical suffering or civil rights violations from the encounter. They also said they lacked sufficient information to verify Vasquez’s claim about his blood-alcohol content.

A preliminary pretrial conference is scheduled for next month. Polson Police Chief Wade Nash did not return a phone call requesting comment. The officers are being represented by Marcel Quinn, a partner at Kalispell firm Hammer, Quinn & Shaw, PLLC. She declined to comment.

Vasquez, for his part, is representing himself pro se, and prepared for a fight. “I think if you have an objective judge, the evidence, the video recording is undeniable. … Even if I don’t win, I’ll appeal to the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals], and if I don’t win in the 9th Circuit, I’ll appeal to the Supreme Court. I’ll let the City of Polson know that their conduct cannot go unexcused.”

Vasquez waded into these issues before, suing two Kansas Highway Patrol officers for detaining him and searching his vehicle without reasonable suspicion in 2011. He ultimately won a $67,000 settlement. This time, he says that “the reason I’m asking for $150,000 in punitive damages is because the actions of Officer Doyle were so malicious and so egregious.”

He considers the lawsuit a tribute to his friends who were killed and injured in Iraq, and says that the misconduct he alleges is “something citizens of Montana need to wake up to. There is no reason why an individual that is innocent should be in jail.”

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