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Wednesday, July 17, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

No Suit After Ticket Sent Professor Over the Edge

BOSTON (CN) - A University of New Hampshire science professor cannot revive claims over his arrest for "stalking and disorderly conduct after unleashing an expletive-filled tirade against a colleague whom he suspected of causing him to receive a parking ticket," the 1st Circuit ruled.

The dispute sprang from a parking ticket John Collins received in June 2007 for exceeding the time limit to leave his car in a university loading zone. At the time, the tenured associate professor was chair of the biochemistry and molecular biology department.

Suspecting that Professor Stacia Sower had ratted him out for the parking violation, and that she had done so before, Collins subjected Sower's assistant and graduate student to "an expletive-laden tirade against Sower, stating several times that he could 'kill that fucking bitch,'" according to the court record. "Collins also kicked a large trash can. Six people, including [Sower's assistant Bernadine] Schultz and [graduate student Michael] Fremat, either saw or heard Collins's outburst."

Soon afterward, Collins reported his own outburst to the dean of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture.

Though Sower apparently shrugged off the incident, her assistant called the police. Because the outburst occurred just two months after the April 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which a student killed 32 people, UNH administrators wanted to err oin the side of caution.

Campus police arrested Collins the next morning for disorderly conduct and stalking. Bruce Mallory, the school's provost, also banned Collins from campus. Following an October trial, Collins was cleared of the charges. He was allowed back on campus and returned to faculty duties in January.

Three months later, Collins sued the university, provost Mallory and UNH police officer Robert Whitten. He appealed after U.S. Magistrate Judge Landya B. McCafferty granted judgment on the pleadings for the defendants on the false arrest counts, and later granted summary judgment for the defendants on the due process and defamation counts.

The appeal failed to sway the Boston-based 1st Circuit.

"Because there was probable cause for Collins's arrest on the disorderly conduct charge, Collins has no plausible entitlement to relief on his claim that the arrest violated his Fourth Amendment rights," Chief Judge Sandra Lynch wrote.

The judges also agreed that Whitten's statement about Collins' conduct provided sufficient information to arrest the professor for stalking.

Mallory and the school also did not violate Collins' due-process rights by suspending him, banning him from campus and removing him as department chair, according to the Dec. 20 decision.

Finally the court found that Collins cannot pursue defamation claims that the school wrongly implied he was dangerous.

"The email was sent on a lawful occasion, and the record shows that UNH officials made a good-faith decision to proactively publicize the incident," Lynch wrote. "Given that Collins had been banned from campus for an incident involving violence against property and a threat of violence against another person, UNH had a justifiable purpose in instructing anyone who saw him to avoid him and inform the police. Finally, given Collins's behavior, the university had a reasonable ground for believing Collins could be dangerous. Moreover, there is no evidence in the record that the 9 defendants acted with malice."

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