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7th Circuit upholds denial of qualified immunity for officer who shot truck driver

November 9, 2018

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the denial of summary judgment to a police officer who shot a truck driver during a fight over parking tickets, finding the record does not demonstrate that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity, making a trial necessary.

The altercation between Officer Curtis Minchuk and Craig Strand, a semi-truck driver, began in 2013, when Minchuk issued two parking tickets to Strand. Strand asked the officer to void the tickets, claiming he had been told he could park where he was and did not see any parking signs, but Minchuk allegedly responded by asking for a bribe.

Strand then tried to take photos of the area to document the lack of “no parking” signs, but an altercation ensued when Minchuk knocked Strand’s phone out of his hands. The two ended up on the ground, where Strand held the officer by the throat and repeatedly punched him in the face, before Strand stood up, walked several feet away and said, “I surrender.”

Minchuk, however, unholstered his gun and shot Strand in the abdomen. In a subsequent proceeding in Indiana state court, Strand was convicted of felony battery of a police officer, then sued the town of Merriville and Minchuk for the use of excessive force.

An Indiana Northern District judge denied the town of Merrillville and Minchuk’s motion for summary judgment,  concluding that a material question of fact existed 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. The judge also determined the defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity.

On appeal, Minchuk argued the district court erred when it rejected his qualified immunity argument as a matter of law, but the 7th Circuit Court affirmed the district court’s ruling in Craig Strand v. Curtis Minchuk, 18-1514.

The 7th Circuit Court determined that a “reasonable jury could find that Officer Minchuk violated Strand’s constitutional right to remain free of excessive force,” and that for Minchuk to prevail, the record must show that he fired while Strand still posed a threat.

“Instead, the record shows that Strand had backed away, voiced his surrender, and up to five, ten, or fifteen seconds may have elapsed while Strand stood with his hands in the air,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the court. “And that is why the district court rightly determined, after a close and careful analysis of the record, that Minchuk was not entitled to qualified immunity as a matter of law at summary judgment on the merits of Strand’s claim.”

“The existence of the substantial factual dispute about the circumstances and timing surrounding Minchuk’s decision to shoot Strand precludes a ruling on qualified immunity at this point. This is not to foreclose the availability of qualified immunity to Officer Minchuk at trial,” Scudder continued. “At trial a jury may resolve these disputed facts in Officer Minchuk’s favor, and the district court could then determine he is entitled to qualified immunity as matter of law. But we cannot make such a determination at this stage on this record.”

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