Monday, April 12, 2021

Excessive force case against Mount Vernon will go to trial

It all started when plaintiff Ketcham, a former police officer, was approached by the police on the street. The police thought plaintiff had an outstanding warrant. Not seeing their badges or identification, plaintiff thought the officers were trying to mug or abduct him, so he called out for bystanders to call the police. At that point, officer Patterson overpowered Ketcham, grabbing his wrist. Patterson then "twisted Ketcham’s arms behind his back, threw him into a nearby chain link fence, and snapped handcuffs tightly around his wrists, causing him substantial pain." When "Ketcham told Patterson that the handcuffs were hurting his wrists, Patterson ignored the complaints, and the officers then slammed Ketcham's head into the car's door frame. The police then realized they had the wrong person and they let him go.

The case is Ketcham v. City of Mount Vernon, issued on March 29. The case was dismissed on summary judgment even though plaintiff claimed the officers had used excessive force against him. Of course, the officers gave a different account of what happened. Normally, cases like this proceed to trial without the defendants even filing a motion for summary judgment, as the factual disputes are so obvious there is no way for the municipal lawyers to argue that no jury can find for the plaintiff. But such a motion as made in this case, and the district court dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals reverses and returns the case to the district court docket.

What the district court got wrong was to hold that the plaintiff suffered minimal injuries and therefore cannot proceed with his case. The district court also saw the evidence from defendant's point of view in granting summary judgment, but that was improper. The Court of Appeals (Pooler, Wesley and Carney) writes:

Drawing all inferences in Ketcham’s favor, as required when considering a summary judgment motion, a reasonable factfinder could determine that Patterson, who acknowledged he did not feel that he was in any danger, unnecessarily threw Ketcham against a wall, placed him in overtight restraints despite his protestations, and deliberately pushed Ketcham’s head into the car door. We have held in similar cases that this type of judicial evidence weighing constitutes reversible error. 
The jury can instead find, that "Patterson used unnecessary force to restrain an unresisting individual and deliberately attempted to harm Plaintiff when he was already in handcuffs." While “[n]ot every push or shove, even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers, violates [an individual’s] constitutional rights,” cases hold that unnecessary handcuff tightening and pushing an arrestee’s head into a police car door can constitute excessive force. 

The district court also got it wrong in holding that plaintiff has no case because his injuries were minimal. The Court of Appeals provides some good language for plaintiffs' lawyers on this issue:

we have never held that a court may grant summary judgment to officers on an excessive force claim merely because the injuries were. minor even where the force was unreasonable. Any such holding would violate the rule announced in Graham and would grant a windfall to officers who commit misconduct but could escape liability based upon the hardiness of their victims. While the absence of serious injury is certainly a matter that the jury can consider in assessing both the reasonableness of the force and potential damages from any misconduct, a district court should not grant summary judgment on this basis alone.


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