7th Circuit rules in favor of police officer in 4th Amendment lawsuit

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the denial of summary judgment to a Highland police officer, finding his decision to keep a man in handcuffs while he was investigated as part of a road rage incident did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

In May 2011, Highland Police Department officer Shawn Smith was on patrol when dispatch advised him of a reported road rage incident involving a firearm in nearby Griffith. When Smith located a vehicle matching the description he had received from dispatch, he initiated a “high-risk traffic stop.”

The driver of the vehicle was Thom Howell, a man in his early 60s who had undergone multiple shoulder surgeries.  Smith ordered Howell to step out of the vehicle and kneel on the ground while Smith handcuffed him, and Howell complied.

Howell told Smith that he was not involved in the road rage incident and later claimed in court that he had told Smith that a recent shoulder surgery prevented him from stretching his arms behind his back to be handcuffed. Smith, however, testified that Howell did not complain of any pain.

The victim was brought to the scene and confirmed Howell’s identity, though officers were unable to find a weapon on him or in his vehicle. The officers decided to release Howell after about 30 minutes, and Howell then filed a state court complaint claiming that Smith’s actions caused him to have to undergo additional shoulder surgeries.

The case was transferred to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, where Smith moved for summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity.  Judge James T. Moody denied that motion, holding Smith’s knowledge of Howell’s injury precluded the defense of qualified immunity and further noted there was “a question of fact as to whether the force used was excessive.”

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday reversed the district court’s opinion in Thom D. Howell v. Shawn Smith, 16-1988, with Judge Kenneth Ripple writing for the appellate panel that Smith’s actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment because “although Officer Smith had a duty to consider the information that Mr. Howell had given him about his condition, he had very little information to evaluate.”

Although there was evidence in the record of Howell’s earlier shoulder difficulties, Smith likely knew, at most, that Howell had recently had shoulder surgery, Ripple wrote. However, Howell did not say that the handcuffs were causing him active pain, the judge said.

“Ensuring the security of the alleged perpetrator and the safety of the victim in such a circumstance is an obvious consideration in an officer’s decision making,” Ripple wrote. “Indeed, during this show-up, the victim affirmatively identified Mr. Howell as the perpetrator to the police, thus justifying a more prolonged investigation while the officers thoroughly searched Mr. Howell’s vehicle for a firearm.”

The case was remanded for further proceedings, and the 7th Circuit ruled that Smith may recover the costs of his appeal.

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