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Patricia Clarett v. Steven Roberts

September 23, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 07 C 5625-John F. Grady, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sykes, Circuit Judge.


Before MANION, ROVNER, and SYKES,Circuit Judges.

Police officers went to Patricia Clarett's home in Lansing, Illinois, early one morning to question her sons about a burglary that had occurred overnight in nearby Lynwood, Illinois. A confrontation ensued and escalated quickly. One of the officers Tasered Clarett three times, and the officers arrested her for obstruction and resisting arrest. Those charges were subsequently dropped, and Clarett sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging use of excessive force and false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and various state-law claims. A jury returned a verdict for the officers on all counts. Clarett appealed.

We affirm. Clarett waived her most plausible claim of trial error-the court's decision to admit two of her criminal convictions-when she introduced evidence of the convictions herself, before the officers could do so. Her remaining evidentiary challenges are meritless. We also reject Clarett's claims of instructional error. Finally, the district court properly denied Clarett's motion for judgment as a matter of law as well as her motion for a new trial. The parties told dramatically different stories about the confrontation inside Clarett's home, and the jury was entitled to believe the officers' version of events.

I. Background

Early in the morning on October 11, 2005, officers with the Lynwood Police Department received a report that a suspicious vehicle was making unusual, repeated trips to and from a garage. Officers dispatched to the neighborhood saw a vehicle in the area matching the caller's description. The officers stopped the vehicle and in it found Clarett, her boyfriend, and her two sons Patrick and Anthony Peters. The officers also noticed an air compressor in the vehicle; none of the occupants of the vehicle claimed to own the compressor, so the officers confiscated it. Soon thereafter, Lynwood police received a call reporting a garage burglary. Among the items reported stolen was an air compressor whose model number matched the one recovered from Clarett and her sons. Lynwood officers went to Clarett's home in Lansing to try to talk with her sons, but they first called the Lansing Police Department for backup.

At trial Clarett and the officers disagreed about what occurred when the officers arrived at her home. Clarett testified that when the officers asked to speak with her sons, she asked them to remain at the door while she woke them. Despite her request that they wait outside, the officers-including several she claimed were hiding out of her sight-entered her home immediately. When she asked them again to wait outside, Lansing Officer Steven Roberts used his Taser to immobilize her, causing intense pain. Roberts was six feet away, and he used the setting on the Taser that caused barbs to project from the device and attach to Clarett. Clarett testified that once she regained muscle control, she tried to run from Roberts. The Taser barbs were still attached to her, however, and Roberts shocked her a second time. The second deployment caused Clarett to fall in the hallway. Clarett testified that Roberts deployed the Taser a third time, totally without provocation.

The officers' description of the confrontation was very different. They claimed that they entered Clarett's home only after she consented and that none of the officers were hiding. They testified that Clarett also gave them permission to enter her sons' bedroom. Several did so, and a dispute soon arose. Clarett ran past some of the officers who were still in the living room and blocked their entry into the bedroom. Officer Roberts testified that he told Clarett a number of times to move away from the door, but she refused. Fearing for the safety of the officers in the small bedroom, Roberts warned Clarett that he would deploy the Taser if she did not move. When she did not move, he deployed the Taser, and she fell to the ground. The Taser delivered an electrical current for five seconds. Roberts said he waited five seconds, then tried to assist Clarett in getting back on her feet, but she began to kick at him. He warned her several times to stop, and when she did not, he deployed the Taser a second time. Because she continued to resist, Roberts decided to arrest her for obstruction. When he attempted to handcuff Clarett, however, she started to yell and flail her arms. When she would not stop, Roberts shocked Clarett a third time. The officers were then successful in placing Clarett under arrest.

Though the parties radically disagreed about important details, they agreed that Roberts deployed the Taser three times. It was also undisputed that Clarett suffered various injuries as a result of the deployments. A doctor who examined her the day after the incident noted electrical burns from the Taser barbs, as well as multiple bruises and sprains. She was prescribed Valium for stress-induced anxiety.

Clarett was charged with obstructing an officer and resisting arrest, but those charges were eventually dropped. Clarett then brought this action against four officers from Lansing and three from Lynwood alleging claims for excessive force and false arrest in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. She also brought state-law claims for malicious prosecution and failure to intervene. The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict for the defendants on all counts. Clarett moved for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, or in the alternative for a new trial under Rule 59. The district court denied the motions, and Clarett timely appealed.

II. Discussion

Clarett's appeal focuses primarily on claimed evidentiary and instructional errors. She also argues that the jury's verdict was against the weight of the evidence and asks us to remand for entry of judgment in her favor as a matter of law, or alternatively, a new trial.

A. Evidentiary Challenges

Clarett challenges three evidentiary rulings made by the district court. First, she challenges the court's pretrial decision to admit evidence of two of her criminal convictions, one for retail theft and one for obstructing a police officer. Second, she claims that the court erroneously allowed Officer Roberts, a lay witness, to offer expert testimony. Finally, she argues that the court erroneously excluded evidence that the police did not have a warrant to enter or search her home. We review the district court's evidentiary decisions for abuse of discretion and will reverse ...

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