Court denies summary judgment in excessive force case

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said there was enough evidence against two officers accused of excessive force while arresting a Hammond man to create material dispute and therefore reversed summary judgment for the officers. The case was remanded to District Court for further proceedings.

Mitchell Alicea robbed a house and then fled a couple of blocks to hide in an empty pool. Hammond police officers were called to the scene with a police dog, Leo. There are disputed stories as to what happened next, but Alicea claimed the dog caused many injuries to him and use excessive force with him. He also claims officers stepped on his head, threw him to the ground and generally used excessive force as well.

The officers claim they only used the force necessary, and that Leo was just doing his job. They claimed they did not step on his head, kick him or do anything other than what was necessary to arrest him.

Alicea brought federal and state claims against the city of Hammond and the two officers under 42 U.S.C 1983 and Indiana Code 34-13-4-1, governing indemnification of employees for civil rights violations. The defendants filed for and were granted summary judgment by the trial court, saying Alicea’s indemnification claims against Hammond were not ripe for adjudication. The decision to deploy Leo was objectively reasonable, as was the use of force, and the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Alicea appealed.

The police argued even taking Alicea’s version of events as true, his prior fleeing cast doubt on the genuineness of his surrender. The court disagreed, saying Alicea was not in active flight once he was discovered. Also, he was in an above ground pool, and it would have taken time for Alicea to get out. During that time, the officer could have deployed Leo or fired his weapon to stop him if he tried to flee. Also, according to Alicea, he immediately complied with the officer. Because of that, the officer’s deployment of Leo could have been excessive.

As for the second officer, the court said when he found Alicea, Alicea was in the jaws of the dog and screaming for help, and there was no need to punch, stomp and kick him. The 7th Circuit said the District Court mistakenly inserted an injury requirement into its excessive force analysis, which does not belong there.

The 7th Circuit also said granting qualified immunity to the officers was improper. The evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find excessive force. Also, the officers’ actions violated clearly established law. Excessive force was used on a non-resisting or passively resisting individual.

Also, because the actions are in dispute, the officers cannot seek qualified immunity.

The case is Mitchell Alicea v Aubrey Thomas, Alejandro Alvarez and the city of Hammond, 15-1255.

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