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Hill v. Shobe

August 23, 1996




Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. IP92-1261-C S. Hugh Dillin, Judge.

Before CUMMINGS, COFFEY, and MANION, Circuit Judges.

COFFEY, Circuit Judge.



Robert Hill was killed when Wallace Shobe, an on-duty Indianapolis police officer, ran a red light and struck Hill's car. A state court acquitted Shobe of charges of negligent homicide, while Hill's estate reached a $250,000 settlement with Shobe in a state tort case. In spite of the settlement, Hill's estate sued Shobe, the city of Indianapolis, and several police officials for violating his civil rights. 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983. Hill's parents also sued in their individual capacities. Defendants appeal the district court's denial of their motion to dismiss, and its finding that defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity. Because defendants' role in causing Hill's death did not implicate the due process clause, we hold that plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that defendants deprived them of a right which the federal constitution guarantees. We reverse.


According to plaintiffs, whose version of events we accept as true for the purposes of a motion to dismiss, Flynn v. Kornwolf, 83 F.3d 924, 925 (7th Cir. 1996), Indianapolis police officer Wallace Shobe ran a red light and crashed into the car which Robert McDonald Hill was driving. Shobe was driving well over the speed limit, even though he was not responding to any police emergency. Despite the speed, and although it was after midnight, Shobe had failed to have his cruiser's headlights, emergency lights, or siren operating. Hill suffered severe injuries in the crash, which eventually caused his death.

When other police officers arrived at the scene, plaintiffs claim that they tended to Shobe's minor injuries while ignoring Hill, who remained in his overturned car. Once medical personnel arrived, the police allegedly told them to treat Shobe before they examined Hill, and then allegedly directed them to bypass nearby hospitals and transport Hill to a more distant trauma unit. Plaintiffs also allege that the police then turned on the emergency lights in the police cruiser, adjusted the traffic signal to make it appear that Hill ran a flashing red light, encouraged witnesses to tell a version of events favoring Shobe, and demanded that witnesses sign their statements before letting them read them.

Plaintiffs, claiming that their rights under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated, sued (1) Officer Shobe, for recklessly depriving Hill of his life, and Hill's parents of their continued family relationship with Hill; (2) the city of Indianapolis and its Chief of Police, for inadequately training and disciplining their officers, effectively establishing a custom of encouraging them to drive aggressively and at high speeds in non-emergency situations; and (3) the police officers at the scene of the accident, for conspiring to cover up Officer Shobe's role in the accident. Plaintiffs also claimed that the conspiracy deprived them of their right of access to the courts. Defendants moved to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), claiming that plaintiffs failed to show that they were deprived of a constitutional right or, alternatively, that defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court dismissed the suit against the Chief of Police in his individual capacity, and the claim based on access to the courts, but denied the rest of the motion. Defendants then filed an appeal, seeking interlocutory review of the district court's order.


We review de novo the district court's decision to deny a motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Covington Court, Ltd. v. Village of Oak Brook, 77 F.3d 177, 178 (7th Cir. 1996). We note that the district court certified for interlocutory appeal only its decision on qualified immunity. To determine whether a defendant is entitled to qualified immunity, however, we must determine whether he violated a clearly established constitutional right at the time he took his action. Montville v. Lewis, 87 F.3d 900, 902 (7th Cir. 1996); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). This places before us the question of whether any violation of a constitutional right took place at all. Montville, 87 F.2d at 902. Because we find that plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that defendants deprived them of a right which the federal constitution guarantees, we reverse.


The gravamen of plaintiffs' complaint is that Shobe, a state actor, was driving recklessly, and knew that such reckless driving could cause a fatal collision with persons lawfully driving the streets at the same time. They conclude the resultant accident deprived Hill of his substantive due process right to life under the Fourteenth Amendment. We disagree. Not every legally cognizable injury inflicted by a state employee acting under color of law violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 699 (1976). Parratt v. Taylor, one of the seminal cases interpreting liability under sec. 1983, cites a car crash as a paradigm of the absurdity which could result from an overly broad interpretation of sec. 1983. "[U]nder this rationale," Parratt teaches, "any party who is involved in nothing more than an automobile accident with a state official could allege a constitutional violation under sec. 1983." 451 U.S. 527, 544 (1981).

Plaintiffs counter that Parratt was rejecting negligence as a basis for liability under sec. 1983, in contrast to their claim that Shobe drove recklessly. A conclusory allegation of recklessness, however, is insufficient to defeat a motion to dismiss. See Palda v. General Dynamics Corp., 47 F.3d 872, 875 (7th Cir. 1995). For a defendant to be reckless in a constitutional sense, he must be criminally reckless. Archie v. City of Racine, 847 F.2d 1211, 1222 (7th Cir. 1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1065 (1989). Criminal recklessness -- which is the same as "deliberate indifference," Miller v. Neathery, 52 F.3d 634, 638 (7th Cir. 1995) -- is a proxy for intent. Wilson v. Williams, 83 F.3d 870, 875 (7th Cir. 1996); Archie, 847 F.2d at 1220. For this reason, the Supreme Court teaches, the test for "criminal recklessness" is subjective, not objective. Farmer v. Brennan, 114 S. Ct. 1970, 1979 (1994); Miller, 52 F.3d at 638. *fn1 Under the subjective standard, ...

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