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Abdelal v. City of Chicago

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

March 31, 2017

BASSIL ABDELAL, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, a municipal corporation, OFFICER MIGUEL TORRES, OFFICER ROLANDO RUIZ, and OFFICER THOMAS PETRENKO, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM ORDER

          REBECCA R. PALLMEYER, United States District Judge

         On March 14, 2012, Plaintiff Bassil Abdelal was the victim of an armed robbery at a beauty supply store where he worked. The offenders robbed Mr. Abdelal at gunpoint and then fled the store, dropping weapons on the sidewalk as they ran. Abdelal exited the store and seized a gun lying on the sidewalk. Officers summoned to the scene mistook Abdelal for one of the robbers and shot him multiple times. He sued three Chicago police officers-Defendants Ruiz, Petrenko, and Torres-alleging that they falsely arrested and unreasonably seized him, used excessive force, committed assault and battery, and inflicted emotional distress. A jury found in Defendants' favor on all of these claims, however. Mr. Abdelal now moves for a new trial pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59. As explained here, the motion is denied.

         Evidence Supports the Jury's Verdict

         At the heart of Abdelal's challenge to the verdict is his contention that it is unsupported by the credible evidence. Such a challenge is notoriously difficult to mount. A new trial is appropriate “only if the jury's verdict is against the manifest weight of the evidence, ” meaning that “no rational jury” could have rendered a verdict against Abdelal. King v. Harrington, 447 F.3d 531, 534 (7th Cir. 2006). In determining whether this test is met, the court is expected to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing parties, and to sustain the verdict so long as it is supported by a “reasonable basis” in the record. Id. (internal citation and quotation mark omitted).

         Abdelal testified that when he exited the store, he picked up the gun, kept it pointing at the ground, and never “assum[ed] a shooter's stance.” (Pl.'s Reply in Supp. of Mot. for New Trial (“Reply”) [215] at 4.) Abdelal did not see or hear the police as they approached the building. (Id.) Abdelal has never had a gun, has never had firearms training, and says he never pointed the gun at police officers. (Id.) The officers' versions of the events of March 14 were different, however. Officer Torres testified that he heard a gunshot as he exited his vehicle. (Id. at 5.) He observed Abdelal pointing a gun at a tactical officer (Officer Ruiz), who was standing directly in front of the beauty supply store, a car length away from Abdelal but at a considerable difference from Torres himself. (Id. at 4.) Torres testified that, as Abdelal moved out of the doorway, Abdelal pointed the gun at Torres; Torres ordered Abdelal to drop the gun and, when Abdelal failed to do so, Torres shot him six to nine times. (Id.) Abdelal finds it implausible that Torres would leave him lying on the ground to pursue another of the apparent offenders, but that is what Torres testified he did. (Id. at 5.)

         A second officer, Defendant Ruiz, testified that he parked in a space near the door of the shop, saw Abdelal, and ordered him to drop the gun. (Id. at 6.) Abdelal had the gun trained on Ruiz, he claims, and refused to drop the gun when ordered to do so. (Id.) Ruiz shot at Abdelal himself he does not recall any other officer ordering Abdelal to drop the weapon or shooting at Abdelal. (Id.)

         A third Defendant, Officer Petrenko, recalled hearing shots as he approached the store, hearing Officer Torres give verbal commands, and observing Abdelal pointing the gun at Petrenko himself and Torres. (Id. at 6-7.)

         Abdelal sees these accounts as wildly inconsistent. He contends that the way the officers described things “simply could not happen.” (Id. at 7-8.) He characterizes the Defendants' version of events as “a baffling array of improbabilities, inconsistencies, and contradictions.” (Id. at 3.) In fact, however, critical facts are undisputed: that the officers were summoned to the store in response to a call concerning an armed robbery; that Abdelal tripped one of the robbers and seized his weapon; and that Abdelal was standing at or near the entrance to the door with a gun in his hand when officers approached. What is disputed is Abdelal's assertion that he did not point the gun at anyone. Two officers testified to the contrary, however, and the jury was entitled to believe them. Their testimony was corroborated, in part, by forensic evidence of Abdelal's injuries; the angle of the “through and through” injury to his arm suggested it was raised, not resting at his side, at the time the officers' shots were fired.

         In determining whether police have used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the relevant inquiry is “whether the officers' actions [were] objectively reasonable in light of the totality of the circumstances.” Fitzgerald v. Santoro, 707 F.3d 725, 733 (7th Cir. 2013) (citing Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396-97 (1989)). “The ‘reasonableness' of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Graham, 490 U.S. at 396. Particularly in this context, the court is mindful of the need for police offers to “make split-second judgments-in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving-about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.” Id. at 396-97. Viewed through that lens, the court is unable to conclude that the jury's verdict in this case is unsupported by the evidence.

         Plaintiff's Challenges to the Evidentiary Rulings Fail

         Plaintiff's remaining arguments challenge the court's evidentiary rulings, but the court stands by them.

         A. Subsequent Shots at Fleeing Suspect

         First, after the encounter leading to this lawsuit, Petrenko and other officers shot a fleeing robber, later determined to be unarmed. Defendants objected to introduction of this evidence pursuant to Rule 404(b) as nothing more than a showing of propensity. Before trial, the court pressed Plaintiff's counsel to offer a purpose for which the jury could properly consider this evidence, but he was unable to do so. (Tr. of Proceeding, Nov. 6, 2015 [171] at 15-18.) In his motion for a new trial, Abdelal asserts that the fact that the officers shot an unarmed suspect shows they had a plan to do so and that they “intended and conspired to shoot and use excessive force on Abdelal and any moving person[.]” (Pl.'s Mot. for New Trial [204] at 9.) Respectfully, the court does not understand how the subsequent episode establishes any such “plan.” Nor does the later shooting of unarmed suspects show, as Abdelal now suggests, that the police officers must have known earlier that Abdelal himself was a victim of the robbery or that they could not genuinely have feared for their safety when they saw him.

         In United States v. Gomez, 763 F.3d 845, 853-54 (7th Cir. 2014), cited by Abdelal (Reply Memo at 9), the Seventh Circuit cautions against admission of “other act” evidence without careful consideration of the purpose for which it is offered. The issue for the jury is what the officers observed as they approached the Plaintiff in response to the 911 call. What they observed later (a suspect fleeing the scene who purportedly matched the 911 ...


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