7th Circuit: Officer who broke resisting arrestee’s leg entitled to qualified immunity

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an Indianapolis police officer is entitled to qualified immunity in a federal civil-rights lawsuit filed after he took down a handcuffed man, fracturing the suspect’s leg in the process.

When Timothy Johnson showed up drunk to an appointment at his rehabilitation clinic, two officers arrested him after he began threatening the clinic’s therapist and security guard. The officers sat Johnson on the ground after he told them he would run away, but Johnson stood up, prompting the officers to sit him down again.

As Johnson stood up once more and began making threats, police officer Michael Rogers kicked Johnson to get him on the ground, leaving Johnson with a broken leg.

Johnson contended that the kick was designed to punish him rather than to return him to a sitting position. Rogers argued he used a leg sweep rather than a kick.

Johnson also asserted Rogers violated the Fourth Amendment by using unreasonable force during the encounter, but the Indiana Southern District Court granted summary judgment to Rogers and another officer.

The district court concluded Rogers was entitled to qualified immunity because the procedure that led to Johnson’s broken leg did not violate any of his clearly established rights, and that because Johnson pleaded guilty in state court to resisting arrest, Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994) barred any claim under the Fourth Amendment while the judgment of conviction stands.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision in Timothy Johnson v. Michael Rogers, 19-1366, but noted that the district court’s reasons for ruling against Johnson were incompatible.

“A suit barred by the doctrine of Heck is premature and must be dismissed without prejudice, because Heck holds that the claim does not accrue until the conviction has been set aside. By contrast, a claim barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity fails on the merits and must be dismissed with prejudice. Here the district court dismissed with prejudice, an inappropriate step when Heck governs,” Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote.

Finding Heck ultimately did not block the suit, the 7th Circuit next addressed the issue of qualified immunity. It noted the available surveillance video detailing the incident was unclear and did not unambiguously establish Rogers’ actions.

“Because the video is grainy, and both Johnson and Rogers were moving at the critical moment, we cannot be sure just how the injury occurred. It looks like Rogers tried to use a knee to unbalance Johnson, and, when that did not work, used his foot — but whether Johnson’s foot motion was an effort to trip Johnson or a kick to the lower shin (or perhaps the foot) is not possible to discern,” Easterbrook wrote.

“What resolves this appeal in Rogers’s favor is this: Johnson, who had told the officers that he wanted to run away, was not under control when Rogers tried to use his knee to unbalance Johnson, who remained on his feet until Rogers took a further step. If that further step is best understood as a kick, it must also be understood as an attempt to regain control. That such an attempt causes injury, perhaps because poorly executed, does not lead to liability.”

The 7th Circuit therefore affirmed, concluding the district court properly found Rogers was entitled to qualified immunity.

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