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Antione Willis v. Joseph Wagner

September 29, 2012

ANTIONE WILLIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
JOSEPH WAGNER, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Edmond E. Chang

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Antione L. Willis brings this lawsuit against Defendant Joseph Wagner (a Chicago police officer), alleging civil rights violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn1 Willis's claims arise out of a shooting that took place on September 22, 2006. Count 1 alleges that Wagner's use of deadly force in effecting the arrest of Willis was excessive. Count 2 is a claim for false arrest based on an allegation that a gun was planted at the scene of the shooting causing Willis to be charged and convicted on one count of being an armed habitual criminal. Wagner seeks summary judgment [R. 75] on both counts on the grounds that Willis's claims are barred by the doctrine of Heck v. Humphrey. 512 U.S. 477 (1994).*fn2 For reasons set forth below, Wagner's motion for summary judgment is denied as to Count 1 and granted as to Count 2.

I.

In deciding summary judgment, the Court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-movant, Willis. In September 2006, Willis attended a party at the home of his friend, Curtis Haggert, located on North Keystone Avenue in Chicago, Illinois. R. 89, Pl.'s Stmt. Add'l Material Facts (PSAMF) ¶ 1. Upon leaving Haggert's home, Willis noticed an individual, whom Willis could not identify, coming through the gangway. Id. ¶¶ 2-3. The parties' accounts of what occurred at this moment are radically different; for purposes of evaluating a summary judgment motion, Willis's version must be credited. After seeing the individual coming through the gangway, Willis began running down Keystone Avenue to escape what he believed to be a potential threat. Id ¶ 3. As Willis ran, Officer Wagner shot him in the back, below Willis's left hip. Id. ¶¶ 4-5. According to Wagner, he shot Willis out of fear for his own and his partner's safety after Willis, according to Wagner, "turned to his left side and raised [a] handgun with his right hand." R. 91, Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Stmt. of Add'l Material Facts ¶ 4.

In criminal proceedings arising out of this incident, Willis was charged with one count of being an armed habitual criminal, three counts of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, four counts of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon, and one count of aggravated assault. R. 76, Def.'s Stmt. of Facts (DSOF) ¶ 5. All counts were "merged" into the single count of being an armed habitual criminal. PSAMF ¶ 6. At trial, Willis was convicted on one count of being an armed habitual criminal, Id., and the state court sentenced him to a term of six years' imprisonment. R. 76-1, Def.'s Exh. C (Illinois App. Ct. Opinion) at 1. This conviction was later affirmed by the Illinois Appellate Court. PSAMF ¶ 7. Having been released from custody and currently on parole Willis now brings this action. Id. ¶ 9.

II.

Summary judgment must be granted "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). Rule 56 "mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). All facts, and any inferences to be drawn from them, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Wis. Cent. Ltd. v. Shannon, 539 F.3d 751, 756 (7th Cir. 2008).

III.

Wagner raises a threshold question of whether this Court's consideration of Willis's claim is prohibited by the doctrine of Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). Wagner contends that Willis's conviction for one count of being an armed habitual criminal bars Willis from litigating both the excessive force and false arrest claims in his complaint. R. 77 (Def.'s Br.) at 12-13.

Under Heck, "before a § 1983 plaintiff may recover damages for alleged harm 'caused by actions whose unlawfulness would render a conviction or sentence invalid,' the plaintiff must first prove that his conviction or sentence has been reversed, expunged, or called into question by the grant of a petition for habeas corpus."

VanGilder v. Baker, 435 F.3d 689, 691 (7th Cir. 2006) (quoting Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87). To properly apply Heck's bar against certain damages actions, this Court "must analyze the relationship between the plaintiff's Section 1983 claim and the charge on which he was convicted." Van Gilder, 435 F.3dat 691. "Heck bars any suit for damages premised on a violation of civil rights if the basis for the suit is inconsistent with or would undermine the constitutionality of a conviction or sentence." Wiley v. City of Chicago, 361 F.3d 994, 996 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Heck, 512 U.S. at 486-87). A civil suit will only be allowed to proceed if its success does not also necessarily imply that the plaintiff's underlying conviction was invalid. Heck, 512 U.S. at 487. The Supreme Court has recently explained that it was "careful in Heck to stress the importance of the term 'necessarily.'" Nelson v. Campbell, 541 U.S. 637, 647 (2004). "To hold otherwise would have cut off potentially valid damages actions as to which a plaintiff might never obtain favorable termination-suits that could otherwise have gone forward had the plaintiff not been convicted." Id. Recent Seventh Circuit precedent applying Heck to excessive force claims applies this principle.

In Evans v. Poskon, the Seventh Circuit allowed a prisoner's excessive force claim to proceed against his arresting officer despite having been convicted for resisting arrest in that same altercation. 603 F.3d 362 (7th Cir. 2010). The court observed that among the myriad claims challenging the manner in which an arrest is conducted, many claims will be compatible with the underlying conviction. Id. at 363-64. In Evans, the plaintiff's resisting-arrest conviction certainly prevented him from arguing that he did not resist in any manner. Id. at 364. But he was permitted to argue that the police used excessive force in effecting the arrest, and furthermore to challenge their abuse of him after he had been effectively taken into custody. Id.

This case's excessive-force claim falls comfortably within the bounds of Evans. Although he was originally charged with a number of other crimes, Willis's sole conviction and sentence was for being an armed habitual criminal. As Wagner concedes in his reply memorandum, Heck's bar only applies to charges for which the criminal defendant has been both convicted and sentenced. R. 90 (Def.'s Reply Br.) at 4-5. As such, the merged counts of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, unlawful use of a weapon by a felon and aggravated assault cannot trigger the Heck bar. Van Gilder, 435

F.3d at 691 n.1 (highlighting Heck's emphasis on both "conviction" and "sentence,"and holding that the bar applies only to the "actual conviction," regardless of the original criminal charges). The basis for Willis' conviction for being an armed habitual criminal was that he was found to have unlawfully possessed a firearm on that September night on 2006, and that he had certain prior convictions. 720 ILCS 5/24-1.7(a); R. 76-1, Def.'s Exh. C (Illinois App. Ct. Opinion) at 17-18. The fact that he possessed the gun on the night of his arrest does not foreclose the claim that Wagner allegedly used excessive force in effecting that arrest. Evans, 630 F.3d at 364; Robinson v. Doe, 272 F.3d 921, 923 (7th Cir. 2001) ("Police might well use excessive force in effecting a perfectly lawful arrest."). To be sure, like the plaintiff in Evans, ...


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