A former SkyWest pilot filed a federal defamation lawsuit Tuesday against the two South Dakota police officers who arrested him for failing a breathalyzer test, saying he has been unable to find work since the 2016 incident despite being cleared by a blood test.
According to his complaint, Russell Duszak says Transportation Safety Administration officers reported him to airport police at Rapid City Regional Airport on Oct. 26, 2016, after an agent reported she “may have smelled the odor of alcohol” on a pilot going through security.
Less than 15 minutes later, Officer Paul Hinzman boarded Duszak’s aircraft and entered the cockpit, where the Duszak was in the co-pilot seat performing pre-flight checks.
“Mr. Duszak was alone on the flight deck and functioning in his assigned capacity, as First Officer of the aircraft, with zero impairment,” the complaint states, adding that Hinzman escorted him off the plane to a private room for questioning.
Duszak, a Utah resident, claims Hinzman never performed any field sobriety tests prior to detaining him, reporting only that he detected a slight odor of alcohol and redness in the pilot’s eyes. The pilot says that he requested a blood test immediately upon being detained but was denied.
At that point, he says Hinzman called for backup and Officer Jerred Younie responded, arriving at around 10:48 a.m. CST, two-and-a-half hours into Duszak’s detention.
Younie administered a Breathalyzer test, which registered his blood alcohol content (BAC) as .046, which is over the FAA’s limit for pilots and other sensitive airline staff.
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Younie did not arrest him at that point, the complaint says, because he “was confused about the law.” Instead, he kept the pilot detained in the room while he left the airport to seek guidance from his bosses.
He returned around 12:30 p.m. CST, arrested Duszak for “attempting to operate an aircraft above .04 BAC based solely on a positive PBT (portable breath test) result with no other evidence” and took him to the police station, where he obtained a search warrant for a blood test, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit asserts Younie drew Duszak’s blood at approximately 12:48 p..m., two hours after the breathalyzer test and nearly five hours after the TSA officer said she smelled alcohol on him.
The pilot claims that Younie charged and jailed him before receiving the result of the blood test, which came back two days later. Toxicology results put his at BAC .015, below the FAA limit, prompting prosecutors to dismiss the charges.
But the damage had already been done, Duszak’s lawsuit claims. It accuses Hinzman and Younie of defaming and slandering his personal and professional reputations in the media.
According to the complaint, the police “fed the media the false narrative that Mr. Duszak was ‘drunk’ and that ‘safety of passengers’ was at issue. Defendants used the media reports as a way to bolster their arrest statistics and bolster their image that they protected the public from a ‘drunk’ pilot.’ “
As a result, Duszak says SkyWest, his employer of more than 10 years, fired him two days later on Oct. 28 and he has not been able to find work as a pilot since then. In the meantime, he has “suffered substantial financial injuries” including the legal costs incurred in fighting the criminal charge as well as as defending his pilot certificate.
USA TODAY has contacted SkyWest to ask why Duszak was fired despite passing his blood test and having the criminal charges dismissed. The airline has not responded.
Duszak, who is seeking a jury trial and compensatory and punitive damages, is suing on the grounds of illegal detention, malicious prosecution, stigma and due process claim.
After reading of the lawsuit, Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris questioned Duszak’s tactics on Twitter.
“I have a high degree of respect for airline pilots, but I insist they be completely sober when flying aircraft out of RAP,” Jegeris wrote, referring to the airport code for Rapid City. “This pilot blew 0.046 BAC (blood alcohol content) on a portable breathalyzer test. Suing the Police Officers involved is absurd.”
it’s unclear whether Younie and Hinzman are still with the Rapid City Police Department or why the department itself was not named in the suit.
USA TODAY has requested comment from Jegeris as well as Duszak’s attorney, Troy K. Walker, who did not immediately respond.
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