Idaho state trooper defends disputed 2011 traffic stop

An Idaho State Police corporal responds to a claim she violated a Nampa man's rights.

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJune 18, 2014 

Idaho State Police Cpl. Janet Murakami says in court documents she had probable cause to stop motorist Lee Rice II when he allegedly weaved in his lane, failed to signal lane changes and drove 10 miles per hour slower than the posted speed limit on Interstate 84 in the early morning hours after Christmas 2011.

Rice is suing Murakami, a 13-year veteran with the ISP, and seven other officers from the Boise and Meridian police departments and the Ada County Sheriff's Office who responded after Rice pulled over. Rice refused to give Murakami his driver's license and to get out of his car.

Rice said officers used "excessive and unnecessary" force in taking him into custody after he was detained while driving home to Nampa after spending Christmas Day with relatives in Boise. After at least 12 other officers joined Murakami, Rice was pulled from his car and taken to the ground, causing what Rice claims are permanent injuries.

Rice, 61, who denied doing anything improper, is seeking at least $100,000, along with punitive damages to be determined in a federal trial.

Murakami said Rice's 2002 Pontiac Grand Am came in contact with the fog line "numerous times" while Rice was in the far left lane, and was already on the right lane marker before he signaled and moved into the center lane.

That, coupled with Rice traveling significantly below the speed limit and the fact that officers often encounter impaired drivers in the hours following Christmas, led Murakami to suspect Rice might be driving under the influence, she said in a court document.

The May 28 affadavit provides the first defense by Murakami since the lawsuit was filed last fall. She also argues that she is shielded from liability through qualified immunity, where an officer reasonably believes her conduct complies with the law. She denied doing anything improper.

Rice, who was accompanied by his wife and two children, said he was traveling west on I-84 when a car got behind him that appeared to have its bright lights on. Rice said he changed lanes to get out of the path of the lights.

Murakami's police car remained in the center lane for a distance before moving into the left lane. Rice later signaled and steered back to the center lane, followed by the cruiser, according to a videotaped recording from Murakami's car.

Seconds after Rice moved to the center lane, Murakami turned on her emergency lights and Rice pulled over. She told Rice that he did not signal for five seconds as required by Idaho law when he made the last lane change.

In her police report, Murakami said Rice and his wife, Harmony Black, 49, yelled at her, accusing her of making an "illegal traffic stop" and driving with her bright lights on. The trooper denied having her brights on.

Rice refused to hand over his license, registration and proof of insurance, and repeated his allegation that he was pulled over illegally.

Murakami later called for backup and ordered Rice to get out of his locked car. Rice refused to get out, claiming he didn't do anything wrong. He repeatedly asked to speak with Murakami's supervisor until several officers helped pull him out of the vehicle and took him to the ground. In the video, officers can be seen pressing their knees against his back, and one officer points a Taser at him.

Rice was arrested and charged with resisting or obstructing officers and failure to purchase a driver's license.

After Rice is taken into custody, Murakami can be heard on the video telling another officer that Rice was weaving. "He was driving 10 miles under the posted (65 mph) speed. I thought he was a drunk," Murakami says.

Rice was never given a field sobriety test.

Fourth District Magistrate Daniel Steckel viewed the video and found that Rice had complied with the spirit of the law, although he didn't think Rice signaled for a full five seconds.

"His signal was less than five seconds, I get that," Steckel said in court, according to a recording of the hearing. "But it seems like a typical, reasonable driving pattern under the circumstances."

Ada County prosecutors dropped the charges.

In her May filing, Murakami said she was never called to testify in Steckel's courtroom.

"With all due respect to Judge Steckel, I disagree that there was not a reasonable basis or probable cause for the traffic stop," Murakami wrote in her sworn statement.

John Sowell: 377-6423, Twitter: @IDS_Sowell

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