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Davies v. Benbenek

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 12, 2016

Dan Davies, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Karlen Benbenek, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued December 3, 2015

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 12 CV 0045 - Joan B. Gottschall, Judge.

          Before Wood, Manion, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Manion, Circuit Judge.

         Plaintiff Dan Davies sued Chicago police officer Karl en Benbenek for using excessive force when responding to a domestic disturbance at Davies' home in the summer of 2010. A trial was held and the jury found for Officer Benbenek. On appeal Davies challenges several of the district court's evidentiary rulings, but his arguments are without merit. Because the evidence challenged by Davies was used for a permissible purpose and was not unduly prejudicial, we affirm the district court's entry of judgment for Officer Benbenek.

         I. Background

         On June 24, 2010, Dan Davies and his then-girlfriend Lucille Whitehead got into a physical altercation in Davies' bedroom. Whitehead managed to call 911 and reported that she and Davies had gotten into an argument and that he had "pulled a gun" on her. Several Chicago police officers, including Officer Karlen Benbenek, responded to the call. The officers kicked down the door to Davies' home because no one answered after they knocked and announced their presence. When the officers entered they encountered Davies, who is paralyzed from the waist down, sitting in his wheelchair.[1] Davies' nephew was also there.

         According to the police, Davies was very angry with them for being in his house. He used profanity, yelled at them, told them to get out, and talked about suing them. The officers proceeded to search the house and discovered illegal items in Davies' bedroom. Davies asked the police if his nephew could "take the rap" for the items, but the police declined the request. Davies then became increasingly agitated and again threatened to sue the officers and told them he had "sued before." He also spat on Officer Benbenek and made a foul comment about a tongue-piercing she had at the time. When Officer Benbenek told Davies he would be charged for spitting on her, Davies threw himself from his wheelchair onto the floor, where he continued telling the officers that he would sue.

         Davies paints a markedly different picture of his encounter with Officer Benbenek. He testified that, once he commented on her tongue-piercing, she grabbed him by the hair and punched him in the face multiple times, and that he later "w[o]ke up" on the floor choking on his own blood.

         After Davies ended up on the ground, the officers called for an ambulance and Davies was taken to the hospital. The attending physician testified that Davies had sustained a fractured femur that was consistent with a fall. He also testified that Davies had severe osteoporosis which made his bones more susceptible to breaking through minor trauma.

         Davies subsequently brought this civil action against Officer Benbenek under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that she used excessive force during the disputed encounter of June 24, 2010. Before trial, the parties filed motions in limine seeking a ruling on whether Officer Benbenek could offer testimony that Davies, in the course of threatening to sue the responding officers, told them that he had sued before. The defense also sought to present testimony that certain unidentified "items" were recovered from Davies' home, and that Davies was distraught when the police declined his request to pin possession of the items on his nephew. Over Davies' objection, the court ultimately admitted the proposed testimony at trial. The admitted testimony was not offered to prove that Davies had a prior history of litigation, nor did it include any description of the items found in Davies' home.[2] Following trial the jury rendered a verdict for Officer Benbenek, and the district court entered judgment accordingly.

         II. Discussion

         Davies' appeal focuses on the district court's evidentiary rulings. He argues that the district court erred by allowing the responding officers to testify (1) that he told them he had sued before, and (2) that he became upset when they refused to hold his nephew responsible for the items that were discovered in his home. Davies contends that this testimony should have been excluded as impermissible character evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), and as unfairly prejudicial under Federal Rule of Evidence 403.

         We review the district court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion and will reverse only if "no reasonable person could take the view adopted by the trial court." United States v. Causey, 748 F.3d 310, 315-16 (7th Cir. 2014) (internal marks omitted). Under Rule 404(b), evidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person's character or propensity to act a certain way. Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(1). Such evidence may be admissible, however, for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, or intent. Fed.R.Evid. 404(b)(2). Under Rule 403, the district court is allowed to exclude evidence whose probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice. Fed.R.Evid. 403. Evidence is unfairly prejudicial "only if it will induce the jury to decide the case on an improper basis, commonly an emotional one, rather than on the evidence presented." United States v. Bogan, 267 F.3d 614, 623 (7th Cir. 2001) (internal marks omitted). We give "special deference" to the district court's admission of evidence under Rule 403. United States v. LeShore, 543 F.3d 935, 939 (7th Cir. 2008) (internal marks omitted).

         A. Testimony that Davies ...

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