NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Motorcoach operators who feel law enforcement officers have harassed them should be able to relate to a case involving Budget Charter of Adah, Pa.
Budget Charter and driver Allen Newcomer filed suit against two Tennessee Highway Patrol officers who they allege harassed them and filed false charges against Newcomer, all over a supposedly faulty bus tire and straws found aboard the bus.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in September 2018 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville. The plaintiffs were seeking $1.75 million in damages from the Tennessee officials.
According to the suit, a fully inspected motorcoach operated by Budget Charters departed Coral Center, Pa., and the next day delivered the California Area High School Band Association, 38 students and 17 adults to Nashville’s Centennial Park for a concert.
At 10 a.m. on April 21, 2016, all hell broke loose. Driver Newcomer, who would pass two drug and alcohol screening tests later in the day, was sitting on a park bench with a book.
Tennessee State Trooper Ivan Pitts approached and announced that the bus had a faulty tire and was ordered out of service. Pitts refused a request for the motorcoach to be taken to a service station for repairs.
Another trooper arrived, decided the tire was not defective and allowed the motorcoach to return the group to its hotel.
On the way, Trooper Pitts pulled the coach over and ordered Newcomer to disembark. Newcomer passed a field sobriety test but Pitts informed passengers their driver was under the influence of drugs. He handcuffed Newcomer and left the group. They were stranded for an hour.
After Newcomer had passed two drug-screening tests, the trooper told a night court commissioner that he “appeared to have a white powdery substance in his nostrils” and said a search of the motorcoach, which had been carrying 55 people, had turned up “straws.”
Budget was forced to retain another carrier to complete the trip. The Uniontown Herald-Standard newspaper reported — on its front page — that Newcomer was charged with driving under the influence, unlawful use of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance.
Before Newcomer’s case came to trial the charges were dropped. The Herald-Standard story, “Drug Charges Filed Against Driver for California Area Band Trip,” remained online as of last month, along with Newcomer’s mug shot.
The lawsuit seeks $1.25 million in compensatory and punitive damages for Budget Charter owners Gary and Natalie Shimshock and $500,000 in damages for Newcomer.
In their complaint, the Shimshocks and Newcomer state, “Plaintiffs seek redress for violations of their rights under the . . . United States Constitution, including their rights under the Due Process Clause, Commerce Clause, Equal Protection Clause and the liberty and general welfare provisions arising out of Defendants’ unconstitutional, unreasonable seizure and illegal arrest of Plaintiff Newcomer, as well as Defendants’ unconstitutional interference with Plaintiff Budget’s right to engage freely in interstate travel and interstate commerce.”
The suit further alleges that “Defendant Pitts and the Tennessee Highway Patrol generally had a reputation for harassing tour buses.”
The complaint states Newcomer suffered emotional distress, personal indignity, loss of earnings and the costs of attorneys’ fees.
“Budget suffered losses of income, impairment of reputation, the expense of hiring a public relations firm to restore confidence in the business (and) attorneys fees.”
The harms resulted from “defendants’ grossly negligent and deliberately indifferent acts . . . The false statements filed by Defendant Officer Pitts were made knowingly and recklessly,” the suit contends.
The defendants are represented by the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. Their stance, as summarized by U.S. District Judge Aleta A. Trauger, is, “Defendants deny that they violated any of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and deny liability.”
The state’s filings virtually ignore allegations of malfeasance while emphasizing technicalities. “Any official sued in his individual capacity is entitled to raise qualified immunity as a defense . . . government officials performing discretionary functions” are shielded from suits “as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
In addition to Pitts, also named as defendants are Tennessee State Trooper William Matsunaga and four current and former commissioners of the state department of safety and homeland security and the department of revenue.