Reversal: DNR officer’s false informing was ‘criminal’ act under indemnification statute

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A Department of Natural Resources officer did, in fact, commit “criminal” conduct when he committed the act of false informing against a motorist who struck and killed his dog, the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in a Wednesday reversal in an indemnification case.

In 2012, Kailee Leonard struck and killed DNR Officer Scott Johnson’s dog with her car, left the scene, then returned about 15 minutes later. She met Johnson at the scene and he told her to report the accident to Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, which she did.

Three months later, Johnson “hypothetically” questioned a Hancock County deputy prosecutor about the legality of a motorist leaving the scene of an accident that killed a dog, then returning. The deputy prosecutor said that scenario could constitute a criminal offense and, after learning about Leonard’s accident, told Johnson to speak with investigator Stephen Banks.

Months later, Banks executed a probable cause affidavit for Leonard’s arrest, and she was charged with Class B misdemeanor failure to stop after an accident. But the state voluntarily dismissed the case about a year later when the prosecutor’s office learned that Leonard had told Johnson about the accident shortly after it occurred.

After the case was dismissed, Leonard filed a federal civil lawsuit against Johnson for false arrest in violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The state declined to represent Johnson in the case, and Leonard was awarded $62,462 in damages.

Later, Johnson and Leonard entered a contract in which Johnson assigned Leonard his right to indemnification by the state for the false arrest judgment and Leonard agreed she wouldn’t collect the judgment from Johnson directly.

Then in the Marion Superior Court, Leonard filed a complaint against the state for indemnification for the false arrest judgment.

At a bench trial, the trial court ruled in Leonard’s favor, finding Johnson had falsely told Banks that Leonard returned to the scene of the accident the next day, not a short time later. But the court also determined Leonard was entitled to indemnification, inherently ruling that Johnson’s actions were “noncriminal.”

The state then filed a motion arguing Johnson’s actions were not “noncriminal” as required by the indemnification statute, but that motion was deemed denied when the trial court didn’t rule on it within the 45 days.

The state then appealed and the Court of Appeals reversed.

“On this record, we find no error in the trial court’s falsehood finding,” Judge Leanna Weissmann wrote in the reversal. “We therefore turn to the State’s argument that the falsehood finding reflects actions that are not ‘noncriminal’ under the indemnification statute.

“… At first sight, the falsehood finding reflects that Officer Johnson effectively committed false informing by knowingly giving Investigator Banks false information relating to Leonard’s alleged commission of a crime,” Weissmann continued. “… Thus, on first appearance, the falsehood finding does not support the trial court’s conclusion that Officer Johnson’s actions were ‘noncriminal’ under the indemnification statute. Finding prima facie error in the trial court’s judgment, we reverse.”

The case is State of Indiana, acting by and through its Department of Natural Resources v. Kailee M. Smith (now Leonard) and Jeffrey S. McQuary, 22A-MI-685.

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