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Police, The Fourth Amendment, Qualified Immunity

Video catches police lying, jury inclined to forgiveness, judge not so much

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Case: Windsor v. Eaves, Dist. Court, ND Florida 2016

Quote:

This is a Fourth Amendment wrongful-arrest and excessive-force case. The jury returned a verdict that was against the great weight of the evidence on liability and a damages award that cannot be explained on any view of the facts. The occasions when a verdict can properly be set aside based on the great weight of the evidence are few. This is the rare case when the verdict should be set aside.

I

The plaintiff is Christopher J. Windsor. The defendants are four officers with the Bay County [Florida] Sheriff’s Department: Chris Eaves, Antonio Jones, Bryan Chavers, and Mike McCrary. Mr. Eaves investigated an anonymous tip that a beat-up white van followed a woman home from a pool hall. Several days later a white van—though not a beat-up van—was parked at the pool hall. Mr. Eaves came to believe the driver of the van might be the subject of an old warrant. Whether there was any basis for that belief is disputed. As it turns out, the subject of the old warrant—if indeed there was an old warrant—was Mr. Windsor’s long-deceased brother.

The actual driver of the not-beat-up white van was Mr. Windsor. Mr. Windsor was not the subject of any warrant and had done nothing wrong. The van belonged to Mr. Windsor’s recently deceased father, who also was not the subject of any warrant and had done nothing wrong. After watching the first half of the college football national-championship game, Mr. Windsor left the pool hall and entered the white van, intending to drive home. The officers rushed the van, forcefully putting Mr. Windsor on the ground. The entire maneuver, from the officers’ appearance to the time when Mr. Windsor was on the ground, took less than 15 seconds. This is now undisputed, because the pool hall’s security camera recorded the event.

The officers were unaware that the event had been recorded. They charged Mr. Windsor with resisting arrest. Eventually, after the video surfaced, the charge was dropped. But in connection with the prosecution, before the video surfaced, the officers gave testimony flatly inconsistent with the video. Mr. Eaves testified, for example, that Mr. Windsor was repeatedly asked to roll down his window but refused, that Mr. Windsor was repeatedly asked to step out of the van and to provide his driver’s license but refused, that during this process Mr. Eaves explained to Mr. Windsor that the reason for the stop was that the officers were looking for a fugitive, that when Mr. Eaves opened the door Mr. Windsor tried to close it, that when officers removed Mr. Windsor from the van they stood him up against the side of the van for about a minute, and that the officers put Mr. Windsor on the ground only after all this. Mr. Eaves testified that four to five minutes elapsed before the officers put Mr. Windsor on the ground. ECF No. 169 at 148-54.

Mr. Windsor suffered a substantial neck injury as a result of this event and eventually underwent surgery. His medical expenses—the overwhelming majority of which were for the surgery—totaled roughly $156,000.

Mr. Windsor filed this action alleging claims under the Fourth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He asserted both that the arrest was wrongful and that the officers used excessive force. The officers moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. The court denied the motion. The officers appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in an unpublished opinion.

The case proceeded to trial. Nothing that occurred during the trial itself—no evidentiary ruling, no jury instruction, no improper testimony or comment— provides any basis for attacking the verdict. To the point at which the case was turned over to the jury, this was a full and fair trial.

Early in its deliberations, the jury asked, “If money is awarded, where will the funds come from? Will it be divide [sic] between the defendants or paid by the Bay Co Sheriff [sic] Office?” ECF No. 155 at 1. With the consent of both sides, I responded that if its verdict was for Mr. Windsor, the jury should determine damages based on the instructions given earlier and “should not consider how any award of damages will be paid.” Id. at 2.

The verdict form asked specific questions. The jury returned a verdict with answers making the following findings. Mr. Eaves had reasonable suspicion that the driver of the van might be named in an outstanding warrant. The officers reasonably attempted to investigate the van driver’s identity before removing him from the van and putting him on the ground. There was probable cause to believe Mr. Windsor committed the offense of resisting an officer’s lawful commands. Excessive force was used against Mr. Windsor. Mr. Eaves was responsible for the use of excessive force but the other officers were not. Mr. Windsor incurred damages for reasonable medical expenses in the amount of $62,000—well below half the cost of the surgery. And Mr. Windsor suffered zero damages for bodily injury—that is, zero damages for pain and suffering or physical impairment.

Neither side asserted, before the jury was discharged, that the verdict was inconsistent. The clerk entered judgment on the verdict: for Mr. Windsor against Mr. Eaves in the amount of $62,000; but in favor of the other defendants on the claims against them.

. . .

VI

. . .

We ordinarily presume that a jury followed the law, and we ordinarily uphold a verdict. Here, though, one cannot have any confidence at all that the jury addressed the issues and unanimously resolved them on the merits. The better course is to retry the entire case.

VII

For these reasons,

IT IS ORDERED:

1. The motion for a new trial, ECF No. 166, is granted.

2. The motion for prevailing-party attorney’s fees, ECF No. 161, is denied as premature.

3. The retrial is specially set for September 27, 2016. A party with a conflict must file a notice by August 12, 2016. The trial will be moved to any other available date in 2016 if both sides so agree. On request, the courtroom deputy clerk must work with the attorneys to identify available dates.

SO ORDERED.

Written by Burgers Allday

July 29, 2016 at 8:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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