Judge rules on bicyclists' right to road; long-running Hadley bicycle harassment case moves to trial



Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013

HADLEY — A federal magistrate has ruled that bicyclists must ride to the right of traffic unless safety issues dictate otherwise.

That conclusion was reached in a 54-page decision released last month by U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman in connection with a complaint brought in 2011 by bicyclist Eli Damon of Easthampton against the Hadley Police Department.

Hadley police say Damon rode his bicycle in the middle of the farthest right lane in a four-lane section of Route 9 during heavy traffic. One police report describes cars traveling slowly behind Damon while he waved for them to pass him in the left lane. Damon had numerous confrontations with motorists while riding in the lane’s center, according to court documents.

Damon filed suit against the town alleging he had a right to ride in the roadway, and that Hadley police were targeting him for harassment.

While Neiman did not rule on all of the allegations of harassment, he weighed in on the right-to-the-road question.

Neiman wrote that much of the dispute between the town and the bicyclist comes down to differing interpretations of state traffic laws.

Town attorneys argued that bicyclists must ride “as close as practicable” to the right side of the roadway unless there is no faster traffic in the right-hand lane or when preparing to make a left turn.

Andrew M. Fischer, a Boston lawyer representing Damon, argued that because there is a passing lane to the left, Damon is free to ride in the center of the right lane continuously, which he contends is safer than riding on the right side of the road.

“Neither side has the interpretation of these various provisions quite right,” Neiman wrote after examining the state’s traffic laws. “The court ... has little trouble concluding that Massachusetts law requires a slower-traveling bicyclist to pull to the right to allow a faster-traveling motorist to pass when it is safe to do so under the circumstances.”

Meantime, allegations of malicious prosecution, illegal seizure of property and civil rights violations against two police officers will move to a jury trial in December.

The case was at one time close to being resolved in mediation, but talks between the sides broke down. Fischer said his client was not seeking monetary damages, but wanted the town to acknowledge that Damon had a right to ride his bike in the middle of traffic lanes, which he had been stopped from doing numerous times along Route 9 by Hadley police.

“We tried very hard to negotiate an order,” Fischer said. “The town of Hadley, by refusing to do what is right, now has two of its police officers exposed. If it takes a trial where two police officers are going to be held accountable for their behavior, so be it.”

Attempts to reach Carole Sakowski Lynch, a Springfield attorney representing the town, were unsuccessful. Town Administrator David G. Nixon declined to comment on the case, stating that he may be called as a potential witness in the trial later this year.

The case revolves around three traffic stops in Hadley between August 2009 and March 2010 in which Damon, 36, formerly of Amherst, alleges police harassed him for riding in traffic along Route 9 in Hadley. During one stop, police seized his bicycle and a video camera attached to his helmet, which Damon was using to record his interactions with police to protect himself, according to his complaint.

In 2010, Patrol Officerr Mitchell Kuc issued Damon a ticket and pursued charges of disorderly conduct and an illegal wiretap charge because Damon allegedly used the video camera strapped to his helmet to record their encounter without Kuc’s consent. The charges were thrown out by an Eastern Hampshire District Court judge.

“The problem we have is the defendant wants to ride in the middle of the lane, no matter what,” Lynch, the town’s attorney, told Neiman in U.S. District Court in June. “He’s going to get squashed.”

Rules of the road

State traffic laws require bicyclists to “give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle” and prohibits bicyclists from “unnecessarily” obstructing “the normal movement of traffic,” according to Neiman’s ruling.

Motorists may only pass bicyclists at a safe distance when passing within the same lane or they must wait until a safe opportunity to pass by using all or part of an adjacent lane.

Fischer said he had “no argument” with the ruling and noted that Damon still seeks an injunction against the town regarding Damon’s rights to the road as a bicyclist.

“I’m grateful to him (Neiman) for taking the time we would want a judge to take on a case like this,” Fischer said. “This is a really unusual case. I think he tried to find the middle ground.”

Police complaints

While Neiman ruled that many of Damon’s allegations of police misconduct did not have merit, some, he ruled, should be considered by a jury.

The Hadley Police Department is immune from the civil claims because two of the officers in the traffic stops were acting in their official capacity as public employees. Complaints against Kuc involving alleged malicious prosecution for pursuing criminal charges against Damon, illegal seizure of Damon’s camera and a threat of future arrest will be examined at trial in December, as will a civil rights complaint against Police Sgt. Michael Mason.

“A jury could find that Kuc and Mason, by threatening to arrest (Damon) the next time they saw him riding in the middle of the lane no matter the circumstances, interfered or attempted to interfere with his right to ride his bicycle on the roadway,” Neiman wrote.

He also wrote that “an objectively reasonable officer would have known that such threats as were made by Kuc and Mason were unlawful.”

Contacted Wednesday, Kuc said he was advised by Hadley Police Chief Dennis Hukowicz not to comment on the case because it was not resolved. Hukowicz did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


 


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