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Utah Supreme Court Reinstates Lawsuit Over Man Held 17 Days Without Hearing or Formal Charges

by Matt Clarke

On June 3, 2019, the Supreme Court of Utah held that a district court erred when it applied an incorrect standard in dismissing a man’s lawsuit alleging his state constitutional rights were violated when he was held in a county jail for 17 days without being brought before a judge.

Robert Kuchcinski was driving a tractor-trailer when a Utah highway patrolman pulled him over, cited him for failure to stay in his lane and asked him to take a breath test.

When the Breathalyzer showed no alcohol, the trooper muttered something like, “Well, that can’t be right,” then had Kuchcinski perform a complete field sobriety test. He passed all parts of the test except for the balance portion. Despite his explanation that he was being treated for an inner ear infection that affected his balance, the trooper arrested him for DUI and had him booked into the Box Elder County jail.

The next day, without Kuchcinski being present, the Box Elder County Justice Court entered a finding of probable cause based solely on the trooper’s statement – authorizing the warrantless arrest and continued detention – and set bond at $1,350. Kuchcinski was allegedly not informed of the bond, but discussed it in a phone call with his sister 10 days later.

Kuchcinski repeatedly asked jailers when he would go to court but was told he was not scheduled. After he had been locked up for 16 days without seeing a judge or being charged, another prisoner mentioned Kuchcinski’s case to his attorney. That attorney contacted the prosecutor, who asked the Justice Court to immediately release Kuchcinski. He was freed the next day.

Two weeks later, Kuchcinski was formally charged with DUI. About 40 days later, the DUI charge was dismissed as the Breathalyzer and a subsequent blood test showed no alcohol or drugs in Kuchcinski’s system.

Due to the DUI charge and the amount of time he spent in jail, Kuchcinski’s employer fired him. Truck driving was the only job he had held as an adult. Further, he reported suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the traffic stop and incarceration, having debilitating anxiety attacks whenever he had to drive more than a few miles. This rendered him unemployable in the only field in which he had job experience.

Kuchcinski filed suit in state court alleging, among other claims, a violation of his right to due process under Article I, §§ 7 and 8 of the Utah Constitution. The court dismissed the suit after finding the constitutional claim failed because he had not shown a “flagrant violation of his Utah constitutional rights” or identified “any Box Elder County individual who flagrantly violated” them. Aided by Salt Lake City attorneys Phillip W. Dyer and Benjamin R. Dyer, and Cottonwood Heights attorneys James E. Harward, Earl Webster and Amy L. Williamson, Kuchcinski appealed.

The Utah Supreme Court wrote that the district court “erred when it held he must name a specific County employee who flagrantly violated his constitutional rights.” Instead, adopting the standard used in 42 U.S.C. § 1983 case law, the Court found that Kuchcinski need only show “the existence of a policy or custom [which may include one of inaction], deliberate indifference, and causation” to assert municipal liability.

A plaintiff who shows suffering for a flagrant violation of a constitutional right, no redress from existing remedies and inadequate equitable relief may seek damages from an individual or municipality for violations of Utah constitutional rights. The judgment was reversed and the case remanded for the district court to apply the correct standard, though the dismissal of Kuchcinski’s bail clause claim was affirmed. See: Kuchcinski v. Box Elder County, 2019 UT 21, 450 P.3d 1056 (Utah 2019). 


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Related legal case

Kuchcinski v. Box Elder County