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Sober Man's DUI Arrest Leads to $500K Claim

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

A sober man's DUI arrest is turning into a sobering experience for police in Surprise, Arizona.

Jesse Thornton, a 64-year-old retired firefighter, hadn't been drinking when he was pulled over by police one night and arrested for a DUI. A Breathalyzer test confirmed his blood-alcohol level was zero, reports Phoenix's KNXV-TV.

After enduring a series of unfortunate events, Thornton has filed a $500,000 claim against the police department.

Red Eyes Lead to Arrest

To keep similar hours as his wife who is an ER nurse, Thornton lives a nocturnal lifestyle. He sleeps during the day and runs errands and works out at night.

When the retired firefighter was pulled over, the officer allegedly told him, "I can tell you're driving DUI by looking in your eyes," reports KNXV.

Thornton, who says his eyes could have been red because he'd been swimming earlier that evening, was ordered to take a field sobriety test -- even though he had bad knees and was scheduled to have hip replacement surgery in two days.

After the test, Thornton was placed in handcuffs and told to sit on the curb, again, despite having a bad hip and knee.

Back at police headquarters, a Breathalyzer test confirmed Thornton's blood alcohol level was zero. He says a drug recognition expert even told him, "I would never have arrested you. You show no signs of impairment."

After having his car impounded, receiving a message that his license was suspended and spending time in police custody, Thornton was later released to his wife, who had to leave work to come get him, reports KNXV.

Unlawful Arrest?

While courts often grant law enforcement immunity as to not hinder their investigative duties, that immunity is qualified, meaning that police officers may not freely and willingly violate an individual's rights.

That means a person wrongfully arrested for DUI can potentially sue the police for a false arrest.

To legally arrest someone, police must first have probable cause. Without probable cause, an arrest violates the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizure, resulting in an actionable claim for false arrest.

In Thornton's case, the police will likely argue they pulled him over for crossing the white line in his lane.

The question then turns on whether the arresting officer's belief was reasonable at the time of the arrest. In this case, the statement by the DRE could come back to haunt the police department.

Driving While Black?

But Thornton thinks it was less about a DUI and more about a "DWB." "It was driving while black," Thornton told KNXV, claiming he's been pulled over 10 times in the city of Surprise. The latest incident of alleged racial profiling prompted him to hire a lawyer to file a claim against the police department.

Thornton's attorney has filed a notice of claim against the City of Surprise seeking $500,000. That's the first step toward possibly suing the police.

The DUI charge was recently dropped, but Thornton's lawyer claims it's not enough.

"Listen, I was a firefighter and firefighters work hand in hand with police officers," said Thornton, whose daughter works in law enforcement. "I have nothing against police officers, this just wasn't right."

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