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Tenth Circuit Reminds Cops That Conducting a Traffic Stop to Flirt With Motorist Is Not Okay

by Jo Ellen Nott

In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit revisited the 2020 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah in which the lower court ruled that Utah State Trooper Blaine Robbins was entitled to qualified immunity for conducting a bogus traffic stop on Heather Leyva, 38 at the time, in order to sexually harass her. Shephard v. Robbins, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 36056 (10th Cir. 2022) Leyva sued Utah State Trooper Blaine Robbins for violating her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  

Leyva was a single mother of three and an employee of West Coast Towing (“WCT”) when her job duties required she do business with the Utah Highway Patrol’s heavy-duty towing rotation department managed by Blaine Robbins.  The Tenth Circuit noted that relationship evolved from a professional one to a personal one.

During hundreds of text messages which Levya and Robbins exchanged, the state trooper came to mistake their flirty communications as the basis for an affair. He did not understand Leyva was trying to preserve the professional relationship that made money for the towing company she worked for.

WCT had pressured Leyva to resolve what it believed to be unfair assignments that favored the other two companies in the rotation. Robbins insisted nothing was being handled unfairly. The two continued to contact each other, and the state trooper continued his aggressive campaign of flirtatious texts, including requests for suggestive photos and requests to go by Levya’s house to have a “drink.” 

The flirting ended when Robbins joked about pulling Levya over on a traffic stop, so they could meet. The state trooper did just that one night, initiating a traffic stop when he saw her driving home. When Levya offered her identification, not recognizing Robbins, the patrolman told her, “I don’t need to see that, just seeing you is enough.” He went on to admit that he performed the traffic stop as a “joke between friends.” 

Levya reported the incident to her boss at WCT as sexual harassment. The boss then reported it to the Utah Highway Patrol.  The agency investigated and determined that Robbins was handling the towing rotation properly but that his conduct with Levya was unprofessional.

Levya sued, and the district court found in favor of law enforcement, granting the trooper qualified immunity for the illegitimate traffic stop. In the appeal two years later, the Tenth Circuit was forced to examine, as TechDirt writes, “the constitutional contours” of a case where “someone with a lot of power expresses an unprofessional interest in someone [and] the power imbalance makes it extremely difficult for the targeted person to resist these advances.”

The Court found the district court was wrong when it granted summary judgment on Leyva’s Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment claims insofar as they related to Blaine’s traffic stop of Leyva. Introducing some sanity into the otherwise absurd area of the law that is qualified immunity, the Court declared: “To the degree that Defendant acted in his role as a patrolman when he stopped Leyva to flirt with her, we conclude he violated clearly established law.”

The Court agreed, however, with the district court that Leyva’s Fourteenth Amendment rights arising in connection with the administration of the heavy-duty towing rotation used by the Utah Highway Patrol were not clearly established at the time of the violation. The case has been sent back to the U.S. District Court.

As TechDirt’s Tim Cushing writes: “This heads back to the court that screwed it up during its first pass. It’s a win for Leyva, but it won’t matter much to her. She passed away while the lawsuit was pending, so any payout will be headed to those handling her estate.”

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