Elkhart Co. dismissed from federal lawsuit filed by wrongfully convicted man with mental disabilities

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Andrew Royer, foreground, is released from a wrongful murder conviction in April 2020. With him are his mother and stepfather, Jeannie and Michael Pennington, right, and Chicago attorney Elliot Slosar. (IL file photo)

Elkhart County has secured dismissal from a civil rights lawsuit filed by a man with severe mental disabilities whose murder conviction was vacated after nearly 17 years in prison.

The county was dismissed last month from the lawsuit brought by Andrew Royer, who in 2005 was convicted of the murder of 94-year-old Helen Sailor, who was found dead in her Elkhart apartment over Thanksgiving weekend in 2002.

Both Royer and his co-defendant, Lana Canen, were convicted of Sailor’s murder, but both have since been cleared. The state dropped its case against Royer — who is in his mid-40s but is described as having “the mind of a child” — in July 2021.

Royer secured post-conviction relief in March 2020, when a special judge discredited three key pieces of evidence against him: fingerprint evidence, witness statements and the interrogation that led to Royer’s confession — which he has consistently maintained was false and the result of coercion.

The judge ordered a new trial for Royer, and the Court of Appeals of Indiana affirmed in April 2021. The state subsequently dropped the case.

One year later, Royer filed suit against the city, county, state and a slew of local law enforcement officials, including Prosecutor Vicki Becker, for alleged violations of his rights via their conduct during the investigation and prosecution.

The county was dismissed as a defendant to that lawsuit in an April 21 order from Chief Judge Jon DeGuilio of the Indiana Northern District Court.

Royer’s complaint brought 10 claims against the county specifically, ranging from violations of his civil rights to violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act to state-law claims of liability. The county moved for judgment on the pleadings on each of those claims, and DeGuilio granted that motion in full, dismissing the county from the action.

DeGuilio’s order mostly focused on the actions of former Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department detective Dennis Chapman, who claimed to be an expert in examining latent fingerprints.

Chapman testified for the prosecution that a print recovered from the crime scene matched Canen, tying Royer to the crime via the prosecution’s theory that he was the “brawn” to Canen’s “brains” behind the murder.

But it was later discovered that the print actually excluded Canen, and Chapman admitted to lying about being a latent print expert.

Royer alleged the county was liable for Chapman’s actions under federal and state law. But DeGuilio disagreed, writing that Royer’s Monell claim failed.

“The Court finds that Elkhart County lacks policymaking authority to ratify a deputy sheriff’s decision because approving said decisions is not within the realm of authority of Elkhart County and its Board of Commissioners,” DeGuilio wrote. “… The Indiana State Constitution independently establishes the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department, which is led by an independently elected sheriff.”

Royer also argued that sheriff’s departments are not suable entities. But DeGuilio rejected that argument both as waived and on the merits.

“Unlike a city police department, a sheriff’s department in Indiana is independently established by the Indiana Constitution, the sheriff is elected by the voters in the county, and the sheriff is not under the jurisdiction of the city’s executive,” he wrote. “This independence, rooted directly in the Indiana Constitution, supports the sheriff’s department being considered a separate governmental entity able to be sued. Other courts have held exactly that.”

The order adds in a footnote that Royer has moved to amend his complaint to add the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department as a defendant. The court has not yet ruled on that motion.

“… (B)ecause Elkhart County does not have control over the acts of the sheriff and the sheriff’s department, and lacks authority to ‘tacitly ratify’ said acts, the Court finds that Elkhart County does not have final policymaking authority over deputy sheriff Chapman,” DeGuilio wrote. “Put another way, Elkhart County is not a proper defendant under (42 U.S.C. § 1983) because it is not responsible for setting the policies or approving the decisions of the sheriff or the sheriff’s deputies.”

The same rationale led to the dismissal of the state-law claims against the county, which “has no duty to supervise, hire, discipline, or train deputy sheriffs … .”

Likewise, “the County has no control over the acts of a sheriff and a sheriff’s deputies,” DeGuilio wrote. “Therefore, the county cannot delegate or authorize the sheriff or a sheriff’s deputies to take any actions. Elkhart County is thus not liable for the tortious conduct of deputy sheriff Chapman.”

Finally, the parties agreed that Royer’s claims against the county under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act must be dismissed “because those claims hinge on the interrogation of Royer by Elkhart Police Department officers, which occurred on Elkhart Police Department premises with the alleged involvement of Prosecutor Becker.”

“According to Elkhart County, it is not responsible for any of this alleged misconduct,” DeGuilio wrote. “In his response, Royer agrees that those two claims must be dismissed because Elkhart County is not liable for Prosecutor Becker’s conduct or the Elkhart Police Department officers’ misconduct.”

The case is Andrew Royer v. City of Elkhart, et al., 3:22-cv-254.

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