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Federal case has implication for bicyclists’ rights

SPRINGFIELD — A long-running case involving bicyclists’ rights on the road and alleged police harassment played out in U.S. District Court Monday as a federal judge plied lawyers with highly detailed questions on their interpretations of the state’s traffic laws.

After two hours of line-by-line examination of those laws, Magistrate Judge Kenneth P. Neiman postponed a ruling on the case of Easthampton resident and bicyclist Eli Damon against the Hadley Police Department. The case has the potential to go to trial, according to Neiman.

Lawyers for Damon and Hadley police have not been able to come to terms on the conditions under which bicyclists share the road with motor vehicles, as well as other alleged civil rights violations outlined in Damon’s lawsuit.

The case centers around three traffic stops in Hadley between Aug. 2009 and March 2010 in which Damon, 36, and 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.

According to police reports, Damon had been riding in the middle of the right lane in four-lane sections of Route 9 during periods of heavy traffic. One report describes cars traveling slowly behind Damon while he waved for them to pass him in the left lane.

The defendants named in the lawsuit are Hadley Police Chief Dennis Hukowicz, Sgt. Michael Mason and Patrol Officer Mitchell Kuc.

During the first stop, officers had told Damon it was dangerous to ride in traffic and ordered him to keep to the breakdown lane. The next month, during a similar episode, officers confiscated his bike and video equipment.

In March 2010, Kuc issued Damon a court summons on a charge of disorderly conduct, and wrote him a ticket for failing to keep right. At the time, Kuc wrote in a police report that Damon’s middle-lane travel “serves no legitimate purpose to him other than for him to exercise his opinion of the law.”

“The problem we have is the defendant wants to ride in the middle of the lane, no matter what,” said Carole Sakowski Lynch, an attorney representing Hadley police in federal court Monday. “He’s just going his merry way down the lane. He’s going to get squashed.”

Kuc had also brought an illegal wiretap charge because Damon used a video camera strapped to his helmet to record their encounter without his consent. An Eastern Hampshire District Court judge in October, 2010, threw out the disorderly conduct and wiretap charges, but not the ticket.

Andrew Fischer, a Boston lawyer representing Damon, argued Monday that Hadley police were not concerned with Damon’s safety as a bicyclist when they stopped him, but with slowed-down in traffic on Route 9 caused by Damon riding his bike in the right travel lane, which he has a right to do under the law. Fischer argued that asking a bicyclist to move to the side of the road potentially puts that person in more danger when curb and shoulder conditions are unsafe or unfit for bicyclists.

“A bicyclist has a right to be in the roadway,” Fischer said. “These stops were harassment. These stops were ‘Let’s pick on the nerdy bicyclist from Amherst.’ ”

Damon’s complaint also alleges that taking his bike away represented an illegal seizure of property by police. In court Monday, he said Hadley police would not similarly seize a motorist’s car and then tell that person to walk to the police station to pick it up.

Neiman said the case, which had earlier gone to mediation without success, seems difficult to resolve and could potentially require a jury trial. On the one hand, Neiman said, Damon’s position seemed “too hard and fast,” to him, and the judge also expressed concern that the Town of Hadley and its police officers had not fully taken into account the particular conditions involved when Damon was stopped.

Neiman took the case under advisement. It is not clear when a ruling will be issued.

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You’re a bicyclist pedaling down the road with cars occasionally coming up behind you. But what’s almost constant are changing road conditions that motorists hardly notice: potholes, glass, debris and gravel in the roadway, and maybe shoulders that disappear and reappear before your eyes. What do you do? If you’re like many bicyclists, you stay as far to the right … 5

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