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PATC Legal E-Newsletter
DISTRICT COURT FINDS NO LIABILITY ON THE PART OF THE CITY BUT HOLDS THAT A JURY MUST DETERMINE WHETHER OFFICERS USED EXCESSIVE FORCE AGAINST A SUSPECT DURING AN ARREST

August 2016

By Jim Chapman, Attorney, Public Agency Training Council


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In Love v. City of South Bend, 2016 WL 3629030 (N.D. Ind. July 7, 2016), a district court was asked to determine whether sufficient evidence existed to allow Plaintiff Royce Love’s excessive force claim to proceed to trial.  The district court determined that the following facts were not in dispute.

While on duty at approximately 4:15 a.m. on August 4, 2013, Defendant South Bend Police Officer Christopher Deak and another officer attempted to stop a white van (determined later to be driven by Love) at about the 2100 block of South Marine Street in South Bend.  The van did not stop, however, causing Deak and the other officer to initiate a vehicular pursuit that they reported to the police department via radio.  Hearing the radio call, Defendant Officer Erik Schlegelmilch drove his police vehicle south on Miami Street from Lincolnway East in order to assist in the pursuit.  Deak, then, advised over the radio that the pursuit was approaching Miami Street while on East Indiana Avenue.  Before Schlegelmilch could deploy stop sticks (a tire deflation device), he observed the van turn north on Miami.  Schlegelmilch continued to pursue the van and, then, requested over the radio that he be the primary pursuit vehicle because he was “Pursuit Intervention Technique (“P.I.T.”) certified.”

Schlegelmilch followed the van as it turned west on Lincolnway East.  Defendant Officer Joseph Cole joined the pursuit on Miami.  Defendant Officer Michael Stuk, who was also P.I.T. certified, joined the pursuit directly behind Schlegelmilch.  Schlegelmilch and Stuk attempted a rolling road block on Lincolnway East as they went under the Eddy Street overpass.  However, the van eluded the roadblock by swerving and crashing into Stuk’s patrol car without stopping.

Officers attempted another rolling roadblock on Lincolnway East and East South Street with no success.  Schlegelmilch also tried a different P.I.T. that involved pulling alongside the van with the front of his vehicle, making contact with the van near the rear wheels, and steering into the van trying to get it to swerve sideways.  His efforts failed, and the pursuit continued on Lincolnway East.

Officer Greg Howard deployed spike strips at the intersection of East Monroe Street and South Michigan Street.  The van ran over the strips damaging both passenger side tires but continued turning north on South Lafayette Boulevard.  The van stopped briefly at the West Western Avenue intersection before continuing north.  Schlegelmilch attempted another P.I.T., but the van was moving too slow for it to work.

In the meantime, Defendant Officer Larry Sanchez, with his canine partner Bacca, had joined the pursuit near the intersection of Monroe and Michigan.  The van turned west on West Wayne Street and made a quick turn north into an alley.  After driving approximately 200 feet in the alley, the van stopped behind the address of 222 South William Street—Love’s home.

Defendant Officer Jonathan Gray had joined in the police pursuit near the intersection of South Lafayette Boulevard and West Western Avenue but had stayed back initially to help with a perimeter because so many officers were already in pursuit.  A short time later, Gray heard that the van had stopped, and so, he ran over to help.

The district court noted that the facts of Love’s conduct after the vehicle stopped were largely contested.  In general, Love contended that he complied fully with the officers’ commands to lay down flat on his stomach on the ground with his hands out to the side and claims that he made every effort to surrender peacefully.  The officers, on the other hand, allege that Love only dropped to his knees and was never fully compliant despite being surrounded by multiple officers pointing firearms at him, being Tasered, and being held by the police dog.  The officers also claim that Love’s aggressive behavior escalated throughout the incident and included pulling out Taser wires, attempting to stand, shouting at officers, and resisting the dog’s hold on his arm by choking the dog as well as biting and punching the dog’s head.  Love, by contrast, alleged that the officers used excessive and unreasonable force by Tasering him, releasing the dog to attack him, and punching him in several areas of his body including his head while he peacefully surrendered.

Love was ultimately handcuffed and treated on the scene by medics before being transported to the hospital for dog bite wounds.  Love had to be restrained at the hospital during his treatment.  He continued to resist while being treated and while being booked at the St. Joseph County Jail.  Love’s blood alcohol count measured .21.  Subsequently, Love filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers and their employer, the City of South Bend, Indiana, alleging that they had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force against him during his arrest.

After considering the Parties’ arguments, the district court determined that genuine issues of material fact existed that required the case to be submitted to a jury against the officers.  In reaching this conclusion, the district court noted that the Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and that excessive force claims are reviewed under the Fourth Amendment’s objective reasonableness standard. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989).  When determining whether a particular use of force is “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment, a court must carefully balance “the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests’ against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Id. at 396.  The right of a law enforcement officer to make an arrest “necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it. Id.  Indeed, “[n]ot every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers, violates the Fourth Amendment.” Id.

Furthermore, the district court noted that it analyzes the force used against a suspect from the perspective of an officer under the circumstances, rather than evaluating the officer’s actions with the benefit of hindsight.  In its analysis of the reasonableness of an officer’s actions, a court must give careful attention to the facts and circumstances of the case, including the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.  In considering the totality of the circumstances, a court may also consider “whether the [individual] was under arrest or suspected of committing a crime, was armed, or was interfering or attempting to interfere with the officer’s execution of his or her duties.” Padula v. Leimbach, 656 F.3d 595, 602 (7th Cir. 2011).   A court’s ultimate goal in examining these factors is to determine “whether the force used to seize the suspect was excessive in relation to the danger he posed . . . if left unattended.” Id.

On the officers’ motion for summary judgment, the district court held that, if a jury were to believe Love’s version of the events surrounding his arrest and Loves’ version of the officers’ conduct during his arrest, a reasonable jury could conclude that the officers violated Love’s rights by employing unreasonable force against him.  Accordingly, the district court denied the officers’ motion for summary judgment and set the matter for trial.

On the other hand, the district court granted the City of South Bend, Indiana’s motion for summary judgment.  In granting the City’s motion, the district court explained that there is no respondeat superior liability (a/k/a vicarious liability) under Section 1983.  Acts of a municipality are distinguishable from acts of its employees.  In order to state a cognizable Section 1983 municipal liability claim (i.e., a Monell claim), a plaintiff must allege a direct causal link between an unconstitutional governmental policy or custom and the alleged constitutional deprivation.  Merely attributing conduct to the municipality is not enough.  A plaintiff must also demonstrate that the municipality’s deliberate conduct was the “moving force” behind plaintiff’s alleged constitutional injury. 

In other words, a plaintiff must show that the municipal action was taken with the requisite degree of culpability and must demonstrate a direct causal link between the municipal action and the deprivation of federal rights.  To justify liability, the allegedly unconstitutional conduct of the municipality, and not that of its employees, must implement or execute “a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body’s officers.” Los Angeles City v. Humphries, 562 U.S. 29, 36 (2010). A municipality can also be sued for “deprivations visited pursuant to governmental ‘custom’ even though such a custom has not received formal approval through the body’s office decisionmaking channels.” Id.

In this case, Love asserted that the City maintained both municipal policies and widespread municipal practices constituting customs or usages within the force of law that caused his constitutional injuries. Specifically, Love alleged in his complaint a widespread practice of deliberate indifference to known instances of police use of excessive and unreasonable force; routine efforts to discourage citizens who attempt to report instances of police misconduct; a policy of diverting citizen complaints from the Office of Internal Affairs to shift supervisors in order to prevent full and fair investigation of citizens’ complaints; a policy of preventing adequate investigations into citizen complaints of police misconduct; and failure to take adequate corrective measures when made aware of individual instances of its officers engaging in the use of excessive force.

However, the district court found that Love had failed to show that the City maintains a written or express policy that permits excessive force in the City or that the City maintains a practice that is constitutionally deficient.  The district court noted that summary judgment is the put up or shut up point in the litigation, and because Love had failed to offer any evidence of an unconstitutional policy or practice by the City (only allegations and conclusions), the City was entitled to summary judgment.

Accordingly, where a suspect testifies that police officers used unreasonable force against him during an arrest, summary judgment will be unlikely, and a trial will generally be required to resolve the case.  On the other hand, a city or municipality cannot be held liable merely because it employed the officers who allegedly used excessive force against a suspect.

 

_____________________

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.

 

 

 
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