Judge Barrett’s Decision on Law Enforcement II

Use of Force, Unjustified Detention, and Other Wrongdoing

Before reading this summary, please read the overview for context.

Biegert v. Molitor (2020)

At the request of his mother, who (correctly) suspected him to be suicidal, police officers went to check on the late Joseph Biegert. The officers inspected Mr. Biegert’s apartment but failed to secure a block of knives in the kitchen. They aggressively questioned Biegert and insisted on searching him for weapons, though neither believed him to be armed or uncooperative. One of the officers held Biegert painfully. Biegert permitted the search at first but then began to resist and to fight with the officers, who attempted to restrain him through increasingly violent means. Eventually, Biegert grabbed a knife from the aforementioned block and repeatedly stabbed one of the officers in the arm. In response, the officers shot him repeatedly, killing him.

Judge William Griesbach found the officers’ conduct reasonable, so it granted summary judgment to the defendants. The court of appeals agreed. Judge Barrett conceded that the officers might have made mistakes but held that, while they might have exacerbated the situation, ultimately Biegert was responsible for escalating the level of violence. [5-9] That the officers had violated regulations was given no weight. [7-8] Barrett emphasised that merely possessing a weapon would not justify lethal force but that Biegert was using a knife against the officers. This entitled them to shoot him even if they had alternatives (most of which they had already exhausted). [9-12] Barrett did not address qualified immunity, because this was not necessary if the officers acted reasonably.

Therefore, the officers were not liable.

Carter v. City of Alton (2019)

The opinion does not describe the subject matter of this lawsuit. According to the complaints, Alton police officer Michael Morelli (who is White) mistook Aaron Crowder (who is Black) for somebody else and demanded to arrest him. Mr. Crowder tried to correct this misapprehension but did not resist Mr. Morelli’s arrest attempt. Morelli nevertheless used a large amount of force against Crowder: very tight handcuffs; a dog; a TASER; repeated punches and kicks; and a knee on Crowder’s neck. [Crowder Complaint ¶¶ 14-26; Carter Complaint ¶¶ 14-26] Crowder’s 77 year-old mother, Pearl Ann Carter, tried to intervene and so was slammed into the ground. [Crowder Complaint ¶¶ 25, 27; Carter Complaint ¶¶ 25, 27] Both were sent to jail, although Crowder had to go to hospital first, and Crowder subsequently lost both his business and his girlfriend. [Crowder Complaint ¶¶ 27-28, 31]

After the defendants had filed their answer, Ms. Carter moved to withdraw her complaint. The defendants agreed, of course, but requested that the court do so with prejudice. Carter amended her motion to specifically request that the complaint be withdrawn without prejudice. Judge Phil Gilbert nevertheless dismissed her complaint with prejudice and denied her request for reconsideration.

Because the defendants had filed an answer, Carter could withdraw her complaint only with their consent or the approval of the court, so Judge Barrett held that the district court had been within its discretion to dismiss the case with prejudice. Nevertheless, under 7th Circuit authority, the district court had been required to offer Carter a chance to withdraw her motion. Carter had asked to do so and had not received the opportunity, which was error. Therefore, the court vacated the dismissal.

Elston v. County of Kane (2020)

Brian Demeter, a sheriff’s deputy for Kane County, was watching his son play sports in a neighbouring county. Urija Elston (a teenager) and his friends were playing basketball nearby. They began to swear and Mr. Demeter showed them his gun and his badge, demanding that they stop. When they refused, Demeter attacked Master Elston. Bystanders broke up the fight. Demeter then called the police to request assistance and told Elston’s father (who had arrived) that he was a police officer arresting Elston for disorderly conduct.

Elston sued both Demeter and Kane County (which was technically the wrong entity [note 1 on page 3]). He won the suit against Demeter by default and was awarded $110,000. [2] Elston argued that the County was obligated to pay this judgment. [3] Judge Sara Ellis granted summary judgment to the County because she found that Demeter had not been acting within the scope of his employment at the time.

Judge Barrett likewise concluded that Demeter had not been acting for the County. First, he had been off-duty and in a county where he lacked jurisdiction. [4-5] Second, his action was not intended to further his employer’s interest, because he was not even in the county where his intervention would have been authorised. [5-7] That Demeter had invoked his authority did not make the County responsible.

As a result, although Elston is legally entitled to many thousands of dollars in damages, I doubt that he will receive many of them.

Torry v. City of Chicago (2019)

Marcus Torry was pulled over while driving a grey sedan. His passengers were his brother and a friend, both of whom were Black, as was Mr. Torry. The police officer who stopped them, Sergeant Robert King, said that he’d done so because this was their third pass by a certain school, which Torry disputed. Sgt. King repeatedly demanded that Torry exit the vehicle so he could search it and, each time, Torry refused. Eventually, King threatened to remove Torry from the vehicle, at which point Torry agreed to leave the vehicle and asked King not to kill him. King replied “Yes, sir, absolutely; hands up, don’t shoot, there you go.” After Torry left the car, pleading with King not to shoot him, King placed Torry in the police car. None of the officers had a drawn gun but one shook a can of mace. The officers then searched Torry’s passengers while Torry swore repeatedly in the back of the police car. At the end of the search, Torry asked if he was under arrest, and King said that if he were he would be in hand-cuffs. Two officers drove Torry’s brother back to his car and, according to Torry’s brother, discussed pulling over Torry again to mess with him. [4-6]

Earlier that day, for an hour or so, King had investigated a drive-by shooting. [2-3, 6] That shooting took place half-a-mile away from the school by which Torry was stopped, four hours before he was stopped. [1,3] Witnesses had given three descriptions of the suspects to the police, all describing a grey car containing three Black males, although two of the descriptions described the car as an SUV. [3, 6-7] King did eventually tell Torry that he had stopped them because of a shooting. [5]

Torry and his passengers sued the officers, arguing that they lacked justification to stop the car and that the cops had effectively arrested them without probable cause. At first, the officers no longer remembered anything about the shooting or stopping the plaintiffs. They later stated, based on a video of the stop (which Torry took) and documents from the time, that they would have pulled over Torry because they thought he and his passengers were the shooters. [6-7] Judge John Robert Blakey granted summary judgment to the police officers.

First, Torry argued that the defendants had submitted their later evidence too late, but Judge Barrett held that Torry had the opportunity to respond to it. [8] Torry argued that these later statements contradicted the officers’ earlier admissions, and were therefore lies that should be ignored, but Barrett held that a lack of evidence was neither an admission of wrongdoing nor contradictory to the later explanation. [9] Torry stated that the report was inadmissible as hearsay, which Barrett said was wrong for many reasons. [10-11] Finally, Torry argued that there was no evidence that King had actually received the description of the suspectsed shooters but Barrett agreed with Judge Blakey that King’s involvement with the investigation meant that he could be assumed to know the description. [12]

Barrett then held that, whether or not stopping Torry violated the Fourth Amendment, the wrongfulness (if any) of King’s actions would not have been clearly established and so King was entitled to qualified immunity. First, no past decision established that these circumstances constituted a violation of the Fourth Amendment. [13-15] Second, the witnesses’ descriptions of the suspects gave the defendants reasons to investigate Torry and his passengers, and precedent established that the differences between the reports and the plaintiffs were not so extreme as to eliminate grounds for suspicion. [15-16] Finally, the plaintiffs’ repeated passing of the same area suggested the intention to perform future activity there (although, by my reading of the opinion, this fact was disputed and therefore should not have been used to support summary judgment for the defendants). [16-17] Finally, Torry argued that the length of the stop transformed it into an arrest, and that the resulting arrest was not supported by probable cause. Barrett held that Torry had not properly challenged this argument but noted that, under 7th Circuit precedent, he likely would have lost anyway. [17-18]

Green v. Howser (2019)

Although this case was primarily a lawsuit between private parties, I include it here because the alleged wrongdoing involved suborning law enforcement to abuse their office.

Jade Green planned to move, with her new husband and four year-old daughter, to a house that was farther from her mother and not owned by her mother. Angela Howser, who was Jade’s mother and also her employer, could be thought to have over-reacted. First, she tried to threaten Ms. Green into not moving. When that failed, she fired Green. Ms. Howser and her husband then connived with a private investigator (formerly a police officer) and with various law enforcement officials to seize Green’s daughter. Howser manufactured grounds to arrest Green by trying to cash a cheque from an account she knew to be closed. The sheriff then arrested Green at a time when he knew her husband to be absent, giving him an excuse to turn the girl over to the Howsers. [3-6]

Even those involved with this scheme seemed to have reservations about its legality. [4-5] What were they thinking? It seems that some of the Howsers’ concerns were justified: many protective orders had been issued against Green’s new husband, although none were active; there was evidence that Green and her husband had neglected, or even injured, Green’s daughter; and the living conditions in Green’s house were inappropriate for a young child. [5,10] The details are not elaborated upon in the opinion. What is clear is that, after essentially abducting Green’s daughter, the Howsers legally obtained guardianship of the child and obtained protective orders keeping the Greens away from her. [6] It took months of court proceedings (and two more arrests) before Green regained custody of her daughter.

“If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction.” Fortunately, the law is as commonplace as the facts are (I hope) remarkable. Green sued the sheriff, the county prosecutor, and the Howsers. The first two settled but the case against the Howsers went to a jury, which awarded $970,000 in damages (of which $470,000 were compensatory and $500,000 were punitive). [7] The court rejected the Howsers’ post-trial motions.

First, the Howsers appealed the denial of their motion for judgment as a matter of law. Judge Barrett also rejected the motion, holding that the jury had been presented with more than enough evidence to reach the conclusion they did. [7-10] The Howsers also appealed the trial court’s rejection of their evidence of Green’s criminal history and lack of fitness as a parent. Magistrate Judge Stephen Williams decided to exclude that evidence because it had no bearing on whether the Howsers’ behaviour was legally justified and could prejudice the jury against Green. The evidence could have been used in the damages portion but, apparently, the opportunity never arose (or the Howsers squandered it). [10] The Howsers maintained their argument but did not claim that Judge Williams had abused his discretion or that they had suffered as a result, so their argument failed. [11] Finally, the court held that the compensatory damages were rationally related to the evidence and that neither the punitive damages were not “grossly excessive.” [12-16]

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