Reversal reinstates wrongful arrest suit against conservation officer

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Summary judgment for a conservation officer was reversed Thursday after the Indiana Court of Appeals found, among other things, that his actions in procuring the prosecution of a woman who killed his dog were not noncriminal.

After Kailee Smith struck and killed Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Scott Johnson’s dog with her car, she informed Johnson what happened, called police and reported the incident.  A few months later, Johnson visited the Hancock County Prosecutor in his uniform and told the chief deputy prosecutor that Smith might have committed Class B misdemeanor failure to stop after an accident causing property damages other than to a vehicle.

Johnson then spoke with an investigator from the prosecutor’s office, and Smith was charged with the offense. The charges were dismissed, however, after Johnson admitted that she did in fact inform him of the incident the night the accident occurred.

Smith and her fiancé then filed a state claim alleging Johnson’s action in procuring her prosecution constituted a false arrest and malicious prosecution, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress under Indiana law, among other things. She also alleged that Johnson acted within the scope of his employment, and that his actions violated the Fourth Amendment.

A federal claim was also filed against Johnson, alleging that his actions violated the Fourth Amendment and that he acted under the color of Indiana law when he procured her prosecution.

The state claim was ultimately dismissed, but a district court jury awarded the appellants $10,000 in damages and more than $52,000 in attorney fees on the federal claim. They also drafted a contract by which Johnson assigned his right to file an indemnification action against the state to the appellants as partial payment for the judgment against him in the federal claim.

Both Johnson and appellants signed the agreement, and appellants then filed a complaint for damages and declaratory judgment. Ultimately, both parties filed cross motions for summary judgement and a trial court ruled in favor of the state, denying the appellants’ motion for summary judgment, and dismissing the indemnification claim with prejudice.

The Marion Superior Court concluded that the appellants were collaterally estopped from asserting Johnson acted within the scope of his employment, and that the state was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Reviewing that ruling, the Indiana Court of Appeals first concluded that the trial court’s findings and conclusion regarding the issue of collateral estoppel were in error.

The COA noted that the trial court dismissed the appellant’s state claim in an order containing no findings or conclusion, therefore leaving the issue of whether Johnson was acting within the scope of his employment not expressly adjudicated.

“Further, it would be unfair to preclude Appellants from arguing Officer Johnson was acting within the scope of his employment when he told the Hancock County Prosecutor that Kailee had left the scene of an accident, because that was not adjudicated as part of the Federal Claim,” Judge Melissa May wrote, with Judge Patricia Riley concurring in result.

The appellate court further concluded summary judgment was improper when it found a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether Johnson’s action of telling the Hancock County prosecutor that the appellants left the scene of an accident was within the scope of his employment.

It based that decision partly on the affidavit designating Johnson was “on duty, in uniform, conducting State business, and performing duties that were an ordinary part of [his] employment as a Conservation Officer” at the time. It also noted that the appellants’ assertion that Johnson was furthering the state’s business by reporting to a prosecutor what he believed to be a crime, something that was a normal part of his job duties.

Lastly, the appellate court concluded Johnson’s action were not noncriminal, and because neither party designated evidence as to such, the judgement was ultimately in error.

The panel therefore reversed and remanded the case of Kailee M. Smith and Jeffrey S. McQuary v. State of Indiana, 18A-MI-1593.

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