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Onwenu v. Bacigal

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 6, 2019

JONES ONWENU, Plaintiff,
JOSEPH BACIGAL, et al., Defendants.



         In the early morning hours of March 27, 2016, Defendant Joseph Bacigal, a West Bloomfield police officer, observed a 1994 Dodge Stealth (1) come to a complete stop at a flashing yellow light and (2) twice pull off to the side of the road and then back into the lane of traffic. Bacigal initiated a traffic stop because he suspected that the driver of the vehicle - who turned out to be Plaintiff Jones Onwenu - may have been driving while impaired by alcohol. During the stop, Onwenu engaged in conduct that further suggested that he may have been under the influence of alcohol. For example, Onwenu first denied and then admitted that he had consumed alcohol earlier in the evening, interrupted Bacigal, provided numerous non-responsive answers to Bacigal's questions, attempted to drive off while Bacigal still had his (Onwenu's) driver's license, and failed to complete a preliminary breath test despite being given eight opportunities to blow enough air into the testing device. Based upon Onwenu's driving and behavior during the stop, Bacigal arrested Onwenu for operating his motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.

         It turns out that Onwenu was not under the influence of alcohol. A test of Onwenu's blood conducted later that morning revealed that he had no alcohol in his system. Thus, we now know that what appeared to be possible drunk driving by Onwenu was actually Onwenu exercising an unusual level of caution (by stopping a flashing yellow light) and courtesy (by pulling over in an attempt to allow Bacigal to pass). Likewise, in hindsight, we now know that Onwenu's agitation and apparent confusion during the stop did not result from his consumption alcohol but, instead, stemmed primarily from his extreme frustration with the fact that Bacigal was investigating him for a crime - drunk driving - that he had not committed. In this action, Onwenu alleges, among other things, that Bacigal violated his (Onwenu's) Fourth Amendment rights when Bacigal arrested him for drunk driving even though he was sober.

         The problem for Onwenu is that the Court does not assess Bacigal's actions from the perspective of hindsight. Instead, because Bacigal has asserted a qualified immunity defense, the Court must ask whether Bacigal could reasonably, even if mistakenly, have concluded that there was probable cause to arrest Onwenu for drunk driving. For the reasons explained in more detail below, the Court concludes that Onwenu's irregular driving and his behavior during the traffic stop, taken together, supported a reasonable - even if mistaken - belief by Bacigal that Onwenu had been driving while intoxicated. Thus, Bacigal is entitled to qualified immunity from Onwenu's wrongful arrest claim. In addition, as further explained below, Bacigal is also entitled to qualify immunity from Onwenu's claim that Bacigal applied handcuffs too tightly during the arrest and from Onwenu's claim that Bacigal made false statements in an affidavit seeking a search warrant for Onwenu's blood. Moreover, West Bloomfield Township is entitled to summary judgment on Onwenu's municipal liability claim. Accordingly, the Court will GRANT the motion for summary judgment filed by Bacigal and West Bloomfield. (See Mot., ECF No. 11.)


         Many of the background facts that led to Onwenu's arrest are undisputed. In addition, nearly the entire episode was captured on Bacigal's dash-cam video, which is included in the record. (See ECF No. 11-4.) The facts are as follows.


         At nearly 3:00 a.m. on the morning of March 27, 2016, Onwenu was driving eastbound on Walnut Lake Road in West Bloomfield. (See Onwenu Dep. at 39-41, ECF No. 15-10, PageID.268; Bacigal Dep. at 56-57, ECF No. 15-11, PageID.299.) Onwenu arrived at an intersection where the traffic light in his direction was flashing yellow. (See Bacigal Dep. at 57, ECF No. 15-11, PageID.299.) Under Michigan law, a driver who encounters a flashing yellow light should “proceed through the intersection … with caution.” Mich. Comp. Laws. § 257.614(1)(b). Onwenu did not “proceed through the intersection.” Id. Instead, he came to a complete stop at the flashing yellow light. (See Bacigal Dep. at 57-58, ECF No. 15-11, PageID.299-300.) Onwenu remained stopped at the flashing yellow light long “[e]nough to draw [the] attention” of Bacigal, who had approached the same intersection from the north. (Id. at 58, PageID.300.)

         Onwenu then began travelling “slow[ly]” eastbound on Walnut Lake Road. (Id. at 67, PageID.302.) Bacigal turned and began following behind Onwenu, but Bacigal did not activate his police lights or initiate a traffic stop at that time. (See id.; see also Onwenu Dep. at 44-45, ECF No. 15-10, PageID.269.) Once Bacigal began following Onwenu, Onwenu pulled off into a “flare” lane and stopped his vehicle on the righthand side of the road. (Bacigal Dep. at 67, ECF No. 15-11, PageID.302.) Onwenu says that he did so in order to “get out of the way” so that Bacigal could pass him. (Onwenu Dep. at 44, ECF No. 15-10, PageID.269.) But Bacigal had not done anything to indicate that he wished to pass, and he did not pass Onwenu. Onwenu then pulled back into the lane of traffic in front of Bacigal. (See id.) About “half a block later, ” Onwenu pulled to the side of the road for a second time. (Id.) Onwenu says he again pulled over to “clear” a path for Bacigal (even though Bacigal again had not done anything to indicate that he needed or desired a path forward). (Id.) But Bacigal again remained behind Onwenu and did not pass. (See id.) Onwenu then pulled back into the lane of traffic, and at that point Bacigal initiated a traffic stop. (See Id. at 44-45, PageID.269.) Onwenu then pulled over onto the right shoulder. (See id.)


         Bacigal began the traffic stop by asking Onwenu where he was coming from. Onwenu said that he had been at his brother's house. (See Stop Tr., ECF No. 21, PageID.353.[1]) Bacigal then asked what Onwenu was doing at his brother's house, and Onwenu answered that he was “just talking.” (Id.)

         Bacigal then told Onwenu that he initiated the traffic stop because Onwenu was driving “really slow” and “swerv[ing] to the right and then [] back over” before again “dropp[ing] back over to the right.” (Id., PageID.354.) Onwenu responded that the “reason [he] pulled over” was because he saw Bacigal and “thought [Bacigal] planned to [pass] him.” (Id.)

         Bacigal then asked Onwenu if Onwenu had been “drinking at [his] brother's [house].” (Id.) Onwenu answered “[n]o, I said we had a family discussion.” (Id.) Bacigal then asked Onwenu a second time if Onwenu had anything to drink “at all, ” and Onwenu again said that he had a “family discussion.” (Id., PageID.354-355.) Finally, Bacigal asked Onwenu a third time if he had anything to drink. (See id., PageID.355.) Onwenu then admitted that he “had a drink [a] 9 o'clock, ” which Onwenu said was “three hours ago.” (Id.) But as noted above, Bacigal initiated the traffic stop at roughly 3:00 a.m., and thus it had been nearly six hours since “9 o'clock.”

         Bacigal says that when he spoke with Onwenu, he observed that Onwenu's “eyes were glassy” and that his “speech was slurred, ” and Bacigal claims that he could “smell the odor of intoxicants emanating from [Onwenu's] body.” (Police Rpt., ECF No. 11-3, PageID.110.) Onwenu denies that he exhibited these signs of intoxication.

         After the initial conversation between Bacigal and Onwenu, Onwenu handed Bacigal his driver's license and vehicle registration. Onwenu then told Bacigal that he had planned to “turn on[to] Farmington [Road].” (Stop Tr., ECF No. 21, PageID.355.) Bacigal said “okay” and began walking back towards his police car with Onwenu's license and registration in hand. (Id.) At that point, Onwenu put his car in gear and began to drive away. When Bacigal yelled for Onwenu to stop, Onwenu did so. (See id.) Bacigal asked Onwenu why he started driving, and Onwenu responded “I thought you said go.” (Id.) Bacigal reminded Onwenu that Bacigal still had Onwenu's driver's license, and he instructed Onwenu to turn his car off. (See id.) At or around this same time, Bacigal called for backup, and additional officers later arrived on the scene.

         Bacigal next asked Onwenu to exit the vehicle, and Bacigal told Onwenu that he was going to administer some field sobriety “tests.” (Id., PageID.356.) Onwenu then told Bacigal that he had had a “stroke” and that his “leg was not good.” (Id.) Bacigal assured Onwenu that “we're not going to make you do any walking tests or anything like that because of your bad leg.” (Id., PageID.357.) Even though Bacigal told Onwenu that Onwenu would not need to do any walking tests, Onwenu continued to tell Bacigal that his leg was “bad” and that he had “disability papers” to substantiate his disability. (Id.; see also id., PageID.358.)

         Bacigal then administered what is known as a “horizontal nystagmus” test to Onwenu. (See id., PageID.358.) In this test, an officer instructs a suspect to follow the officer's finger without moving the suspect's head. Bacigal told Onwenuu to “follow the tip of [Bacigal's] finger with [Onwenu's] eyes and just [Onwenu's] eyes.” (Id.) He then instructed Onwenu not to “move [his] head at all.” (Id.) While administering the test, Bacigal repeatedly instructed Onwenu not to move his head. (See id., PageID.358-359.) Onwenu responded that he was not moving his head and that the lights from Bacigal's police car were “shining in [his] face.” (Id., PageID.359.) Bacigal concluded that Onwenu had failed the nystagmus test. (See id., PageID.370.)

         Bacigal next tried to administer a preliminary breathalyzer test (“PBT”) by having Onwenu blow air into a portable breathalyzer device. (See id., PageID.360.) Bacigal instructed Onwenu to “blow it up like [he was] blowing a balloon.” (Id.) Onwenu failed to blow sufficient breath into the device on his first attempt. (See id.) Bacigal then told Onwenu that he “needed to blow more than that, ” and Bacigal explained that Onwenu needed to “put [his] lips around [the device]” and “blow into it [] like [] blowing a balloon.” (Id., PageID.360-361.) Onwenu failed to blow enough breath on his second attempt. (See id., PageID.361.) Bacigal then told Onwenu that he saw Onwenu “putting [his] lips over the [device]” and not around the device and that Onwenu was not taking the test correctly. (Id.)

         Around this time, Onwenu became upset and told Bacigal that he did not “like the way [Bacigal was] treating [him].” (Id.) Onwenu also said that he felt like Bacigal was treating him like a “criminal” and that if Bacigal wanted to “check [his] record” Bacigal could “check.” (Id.) Bacigal responded by explaining that he did not want to check Onwenu's record; he wanted to check Onwenu's “breath.” (Id., PageID.361-362.) When Onwenu said he “already” blew into the machine, Bacigal said “[n]o, you didn't. You put your lips in front of the tube and pretended to blow.” (Id., PageID.362.)

         Importantly, Bacigal confirmed on the scene that Onwenu had the physical capability to take the breathalyzer test. To do that, Bacigal set the breathalyzer device aside, asked Onwenu to “look at me, ” and physically demonstrated how to blow out enough air to complete the test. (Id.) Bacigal then told Onwenu: “You need to put your lips around the tube, okay. We're going to put [your lips] around the tube, not in front of [the tube], and we're going to blow long and steady.” (Id.) Finally, Bacigal asked Onwenu if Onwenu could exhale like Bacigal had just demonstrated. (See id.) Bacigal then watched as Onwenu showed how much air he could exhale. (See id., PageID.362-363; see also Stop Video, ECF No. 11-4.) Bacigal determined that Onwenu had blown enough air to complete the test, and Bacigal told Onwenu that he should blow like “that” when given another chance to take the test. (Stop Tr., ECF No. 21, PageID.363.) Bacigal immediately thereafter gave Onwenu another opportunity to take the PBT, but Onwenu again failed to blow enough air into the machine. (See id.)

         At this point, Onwenu began repeating his complaints about how he was being treated. He said that he did not “understand” why there were so many officers on the scene, said he was not “harassing” the officers, and pointed out that he was “licensed by the State of Michigan as a counselor.” (Id., PageID.363.) Onwenu and Bacigal then disagreed about whether Onwenu had completed the PBT:

ONWENU: So you asked me to blow, I blow for you. [….]
BACIGAL: Sir, you haven't blown at all. You keep putting your lips in front of the tube.
ONWENU: I will blow for you, I will blow for you, I have no problem.
BACIGAL: Okay, let's do that. No, no, no, no, no, put your lips around the tube.
ONWENU: Around this?
BACIGAL: Around the tube. Put your lips around the tube like a straw. Now blow in. Sir, you have to blow in. I know what you're trying -
ONWENU: I'm blowing. I'm blowing. Why do I tell you the truth, you wouldn't even take it?
BACIGAL: Sir, please blow into the tube.
ONWENU: [….] Why you punishing me? I'm not a criminal.
BACIGAL: Sir, I'm not -
ONWENU: I haven't done anything wrong.
BACIGAL: Sir, I don't want to punish you. I want to make sure you're being safe. Your driving was very unsafe.

(Id. PageID.363-365.)

         Shortly thereafter, Bacigal had a second officer attempt to administer the PBT to Onwenu. Bacigal told Onwenu that if he did not provide a valid sample, he (Bacigal) would arrest Onwenu. Onwenu continued to interrupt Bacigal and provide non-responsive answers to Bacigal's request that Onwenu take the PBT:

BACIGAL: I'm going to give you one more chance -
ONWENU: That's fine
BACIGAL: - to actually blow into this.
ONWENU: I will blow if you want me to blow.
BACIGAL: Listen, if you don't - this is the last chance - If you -
ONWENU: I'm not understanding. [You] want to lock me up, because ...

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