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Citing lackluster briefing, court gives trooper another chance in panhandler's suit

December 4, 2018

Lamenting the “limited utility” of the parties’ briefing on cross-motions for summary judgment, a district court judge has denied summary judgment to an Indiana State Police trooper sued after arresting a man for a form of panhandling but is giving him another chance to defeat a summary judgment ruling in favor of the arrestee.

Indiana Southern District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson took several opportunities in her Friday order in James Major Henley v. Troy Sunier, 1:17-cv-02385, to criticize Henley and Sunier’s various briefs and motions, describing their court filings as “ships passing in the night.” The two men – Henley an Indianapolis resident and Sunier an ISP trooper – are in a legal battle over the propriety of Henley’s arrest for “signing” —the action of standing at intersections and holding a sign asking motorists for assistance.

“To put it kindly, the parties’ briefing as to the false-arrest claim was of limited utility to the Court,” Magnus-Stinson wrote in a 29-page order that both granted and denied various summary judgment motions.

The parties’ summary judgment motions were filed as part of Henley’s complaint alleging First and Fourth Amendment violations against Sunier. Those violations allegedly first occurred in February 2017, when Sunier arrested Henley for “refusing to aid an officer.” Specifically, Sunier alleged he had told Henley in early 2016 to stop signing at intersections along Keystone Avenue between 86th and 96th streets, giving him probable cause to arrest Henley roughly one year later when he was found signing at the same location again.

The charges against Henley were later dropped, and about five months after his arrest, Henley filed his original complaint. Then on Aug. 24, 2017 — about one month after the original complaint was filed — Sunier drove by the same area, saw Henley signing again and rolled down his window to tell the man that filing a lawsuit did not give him the right to continue signing. Sunier saw Henley signing at the intersection again the next day and “squawked” his lights to indicate that Henley needed to leave.

The February 2017 arrest and Aug. 24 and 25 “move-along orders” formed the basis of Henley’s lawsuit. After determining that Henley’s claims were brought against Sunier in his individual capacity — thus precluding injunctive relief — Magnus-Stinson determined the trooper was not entitled to summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment false arrest claim. That’s because Henley was arrested nearly one year after Sunier had last told him to stop signing for the sake of Henley’s and the public safety.

Magnus-Stinson’s ruling on the false arrest issue stemmed from her reading of Indiana Code section 35-44.1-3-3, which holds that a person commits the offense of refusal to aid an officer when the offender, “when ordered by a law enforcement officer to assist in the execution of the officer’s duties … refuses to assist … .” The dispositive question, she said, was the meaning of the phrase “when ordered.”

“As described above, while the statute certainly may permit some wiggle room in temporal proximity between the order and the refusal, no case even comes close to suggesting or even supporting the argument that a delay of one year is encompassed within the statutory prohibition,” the chief judge wrote. “And finally, Trooper Sunier’s reading of the statute creates a regime of potential criminal liability that can be described, at best, as troubling.

“Trooper Sunier’s interpretation suggests that individuals could be (and indeed are) subject to standing orders by the police officers with whom they come into contact, apparently in perpetuity,” she continued. “There is no shortage of examples that the Court can conjure to illustrate the disturbing consequences of the statutory meaning that Trooper Sunier suggests.”

However, Magnus-Stinson stopped short of entering summary judgment on the false arrest claim in Henley’s favor. Instead, pointing to the parties’ lackluster briefing, the chief judge wrote, “there is a possibility that the parties may not have anticipated the Court’s specific grounds for reaching this conclusion.” To that end, she gave Sunier 14 days from Nov. 30 to show cause as to why summary judgment should not be entered for Henley on the false arrest claim.

But she explicitly denied Sunier’s motion for summary judgment on Henley’s First Amendment claims stemming from the Aug. 24 move-along order. Pointing to the fact that Sunier told Henley his lawsuit did not give him the right to continue signing, Magnus-Stinson rejected Sunier’s claim that he gave the move-along order out of concern for public safety.

The chief judge also denied summary judgment on the Aug. 25 move-along order to both parties, once again citing to their motions as the reason for the denial.

“The Court could kindly describe this briefing as the proverbial ships passing in the night, and the Court expended considerable time and attention in its attempt simply to line up the parties’ arguments,” Magnus-Stinson wrote. “… In any event, neither party has met his burden to establish that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on this claim, and indeed, the parties’ briefing reads more like an afterthought than a wholehearted attempt at establishing an entitlement to judgment.”

Finally, Magnus-Stinson granted summary judgment to Sunier on Henley’s request for declaratory judgment on the false arrest claim but denied him summary judgment on the remaining First Amendment declaratory relief claims.

The chief judge instructed Magistrate Judge Tim Baker to meet with the parties to attempt to resolve all remaining claims short of trial. 

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