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Johnson v. Rogers

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 17, 2019

Timothy Johnson, Plaintiff-Appellant,
Michael Rogers, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued November 6, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 1:16-cv-02705-JMS-MPB - Jane Magnus-Stinson, Chief Judge.

          Before EASTERBROOK, MANION, and BARRETT, Circuit Judges.


         In October 2014 Timothy Johnson showed up drunk for an appointment at a rehab clinic. After he threatened a therapist and the clinic's security guard, the clinic called the police. Two officers arrested and handcuffed Johnson. When he told them that he would run away, they sat him on the pavement next to a patrol car. What happened next led to this suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The events we describe were captured on video. The video lacks a sound track, but the officers' descriptions about what Johnson said are uncontested, because he was too inebriated to remember much about the encounter.

         Despite being cuffed behind his back, Johnson managed to stand. The officers walked him backward about 10 feet and sat him down on a patch of grass. They returned to their cars to do some paperwork. In about a minute Johnson got to his knees and managed to stand again. He started to move away, shouting threats and racial taunts. Officer Rogers returned and pulled Johnson backward by his cuffed hands. When that did not return him to the ground, Rogers tried a different means. Johnson fell and suffered a compound fracture of one leg. He contends that this resulted from a kick designed to punish him rather than to return him to a sitting position; Rogers contends that he used a leg sweep (in other words, tripped Johnson to force him backward) rather than a kick. The grainy video does not enable a viewer to distinguish these possibilities with confidence.

         Johnson contends that Rogers violated the Fourth Amendment (applied to state actors via the Fourteenth) by using unreasonable force during the encounter. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). The district court granted summary judgment for the officers, giving two reasons. 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 6961 (S.D. Ind. Jan. 15, 2019). First, the judge concluded that Rogers is entitled to qualified immunity, because the procedure that led to Johnson's broken leg did not violate any of his clearly established rights. Second, the judge wrote that, because Johnson pleaded guilty in state court to resisting arrest, Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), bars any claim under the Fourth Amendment while the judgment of conviction stands. The district court also ruled in defendants' favor on Johnson's federal claim against the City of Indianapolis and its Chief of Police, and his state-law claims against all three defendants. Those additional claims have been abandoned on appeal, and we have amended the caption accordingly.

         The district court's two reasons for ruling against Johnson-qualified immunity and Heck-are incompatible. A suit barred by the doctrine of Heck is premature and must be dismissed without prejudice, because Heck holds that the claim does not accrue until the conviction has been set aside. See Morgan v. Schott, 914 F.3d 1115, 1122 (7th Cir. 2019); Moore v. Burge, 771 F.3d 444, 446 (7th Cir. 2014). By contrast, a claim barred by the doctrine of qualified immunity fails on the merits and must be dismissed with prejudice. Here the district court dismissed with prejudice, an inappropriate step when Heck governs. It is possible to bypass Heck and address the merits-after all, Heck concerns timing rather than subject-matter jurisdiction. See Polzin v. Gage, 636 F.3d 834, 838 (7th Cir. 2011). But the district court did not bypass Heck. Relying on it, the court concluded that suit had been filed too soon, and a premature suit must be dismissed without prejudice. We therefore start with Heck to determine whether it is appropriate to consider immunity at all.

         Heck concludes that a person cannot use §1983 to collect damages on a theory irreconcilable with a conviction's validity, unless that conviction has been set aside. (Whether this rule extends past the end of imprisonment is a subject before the en banc court in Savory v. Cannon, No. 17-3543 (argued Sept. 24, 2019). We assume for current purposes that it does.) Defendants contend that any recovery for excessive force used at the time of arrest would be inconsistent with Johnson's conviction for resisting arrest. Yet Wallace v. Kato, 549 U.S. 384 (2007), holds that a claim of wrongful arrest may proceed even if a person has been convicted of the offense that led to the arrest. Whether the police had probable cause to arrest is distinct from the question whether a criminal conviction, on a different factual record or a guilty plea, is valid. Likewise when the arrested person contends that the police used excessive force. The propositions "the suspect resisted arrest" and "the police used too much force to effect the arrest" can be true at the same time. And so we held in Evans v. Poskon, 603 F.3d 362 (7th Cir. 2010), and its successors, such as Mordi v. Zeigler, 870 F.3d 703 (7th Cir. 2017), and Hill v. Murphy, 785 F.3d 242 (7th Cir. 2015).

         Any given plaintiff may choose to rest an excessive-force claim wholly on a contention that the police attacked an innocent bystander, who did not try to fend them off. Then a conviction for resisting arrest would be inconsistent with an award of damages for the arrest. See Okoro v. Callaghan, 324 F.3d 488 (7th Cir. 2003). Johnson, however, does not deny that he tried to obstruct the police from maintaining custody after his arrest. He contends only that Rogers used force that was unreasonable in relation to the nature of his obstruction. This contention can be resolved in Johnson's favor without casting any doubt on the validity of his conviction. It follows that Heck does not block this suit.

         The qualified-immunity topic is more difficult. Public officials are entitled to immunity unless, by the time of the contested acts, it was clearly established that those acts violated the Constitution. See Escondido v. Emmons, 139 S.Ct. 500 (2019) (citing many other decisions). Johnson observes that it has been clearly established at least since Graham (1989) that using excessive force to make an arrest violates the Fourth Amendment. That's not enough, however.

         The principle "do not use excessive force" is clearly established but does not tell an officer what kinds of force, in which situations, are excessive and therefore does not negate immunity. Emmons illustrates the point by holding, first, that "do not use unreasonable force" does not establish any concrete rule "clearly" and, second, that an officer is entitled to immunity for a takedown that enables the officer to control a suspect during an arrest. Only when precedent places the invalidity of a particular action beyond debate may damages be awarded. Emmons, 139 S.Ct. at 504, quoting from District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S.Ct. 577 (2018).

         Many decisions hold that there is no clearly established rule forbidding a clean takedown to end mild resistance of the sort that Johnson displayed. See, e.g., Kelsay v. Ernst, 933 F.3d 975 (8th Cir. 2019) (qualified immunity for a bear-hug takedown when an angry suspect walked away from the officer for the second time); Shafer v. Santa Barbara, 868 F.3d 1110 (9th Cir. 2017) (qualified immunity for a leg-sweep takedown when the intoxicated suspect tried to pull away); Hedgpeth v. Rahim, 893 F.3d 802 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (qualified immunity for an arm takedown accompanied by a knee to the rear of the leg of a suspect who had pulled his hands away from the cuffing procedure).

         Any takedown can go awry-some suspects fall clumsily, while others have fragile bones-but, if the officers use steps reasonably likely to effect a clean takedown, an injury does not lead to liability. Assessment under Graham is objective; a court asks whether the force used was reasonable, not whether things turned out badly. See, e.g., Kelsay,933 F.3d 975 (suspect suffered a broken collarbone); Hogan v. Cunningham,722 F.3d 725 (5th Cir. 2013) (qualified immunity for a tackle takedown in which officer landed awkwardly on suspect, causing two broken ribs); Becker v. Bateman,709 F.3d 1019 (10th Cir. 2013) (qualified immunity for a clean throw-down takedown in ...

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