Suit from truck driver shot by Merrillville police proceeds

The town of Merrillville and one of its police officers lost their bid for summary judgment on a truck driver’s excessive force claim after a district court judge determined questions of fact exist as to whether the officer was justified in shooting the driver during an altercation.

Indiana Northern District Judge James T. Moody denied the town and Officer Curtis Minchuk’s motion for summary judgment Wednesday in Craig Strand v. Town of Merrillville, Indiana, et al., 2:15-cv-149. The case began in May 2013, when Craig Strand parked his semi-truck in the parking lot of a local Planned Parenthood facility while he took a drug test in a nearby laboratory. Strand did not see any “no parking” signs in the parking lot, and a woman smoking outside of the facility told him he could leave his truck there while he went to the lab.

Minchuk was assigned to patrol the Planned Parenthood lot on the day in question, and he left two traffic citations on Strand’s truck when he saw it parked in the lot. When Strand returned, he asked Minchuk to void the citations because he had been told he could park there, but the officer allegedly asked for a bribe.

Strand refused and began taking photos of the parking lot with his cell phone to document the lack of “No parking” signs. The officer told Strand to leave, then knocked the phone out of his hands when the driver said he wanted to continue taking pictures.

An argument ensued and escalated into a physical altercation when Minchuk grabbed Strand by the shirt and neck and ripped his shirt off his back. The two eventually ended up on the ground, where Strand held Minchuk by the throat and repeatedly punched him in the face.

Strand then stood up, walked about six feet away from the officer, put his hands in the air and said, “I surrender.” Minchuk, however, who claimed to fear for his life, unholstered his gun and shot Strand in the abdomen.

The truck driver was eventually convicted of felony battery, but he filed the instant federal suit against Minchuk and Merrillville alleging excessive use of deadly force. Both defendants moved for summary judgment, relying on precedent in Johnson v. Scott, 576 F.3d 658, 659 (7th Cir. 2009) and City and County of San Francisco, California v. Sheehan, 135 S. Ct. 1765 (2015).

Moody, however, wrote Wednesday that unlike Johnson, the underlying crime that led to the encounter between Strand and Minchuk was not serious, but rather was a simple parking violation. And unlike both Johnson or Sheehan, Minchuk had no reason to believe Strand was armed with a deadly weapon, he said.

Similarly, Minchuk’s use of force was disproportionate considering the nature of Strand’s violation and the fact that there was no reason to suspect him of being armed, the judge wrote. Further, Strand voluntarily extracted himself from the situation by walking away and raising his hands, so there was no reason to presume his surrender was disingenuous.

Moody also noted that unlike Johnson or Sheehan, Minchuk, the officer, was the initial aggressor.

“There was no indication that plaintiff might pose a danger to Officer Minchuk until after the officer had slapped plaintiffs’ cell phone out of his hands and grabbed him by the neck,” the judge wrote. “In fact, but for Officer Minchuk’s alleged aggressions, the encounter likely would have been limited to a routine parking citation.”

Moody concluded there were questions of fact as to whether the rapidly evolving nature of the altercation justified Minchuk’s use of deadly force, and whether Strand had been subdued prior to Minchuk shooting him. In light of those facts, the judge denied summary judgment to the defendants on their arguments that Minchuk’s actions were objectively reasonable, and that they were entitled to qualified immunity.

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