2 lawsuits against police dismissed
SOUTH BEND, Apr 16, 2012 (South Bend Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Two separate lawsuits filed against the city of South Bend and its police department were recently dismissed -- one involving the fatal shooting of a bank robbery suspect and the other concerning an officer's arrest of two people at a hotel.
In 2010, the mother and children of Brian Szuflita filed suit alleging
South Bend police officers Joshua Morgan and Chris Slager had a "duty
to protect" Szuflita from the "use of deadly force" as they chased him
following a 1st Source bank robbery on July 25, 2008.
Morgan and Slager fired 16 shots at Szuflita, hitting him 11 times
after he allegedly lunged at the officers with a knife.
U.S. District Judge James T. Moody ruled in favor of the city and the
officers on March 30, determining Morgan and Slager's actions were
reasonable under the circumstances. (The city had filed a motion for a
summary judgment, arguing there was no factual basis for the lawsuit,
and the judge granted it.)
"The officers' affidavits demonstrate that the officers used deadly
force against Szuflita in response to the fact that Szuflita
brandished a deadly weapon -- here, a knife -- at Officer Morgan and
moved aggressively toward Officer Morgan with the weapon in hand."
The lawsuit was filed by Szuflita's estate, his mother, Ruby Szuflita,
and his two children. Arguing against the summary judgment, they said
the city had failed to show the officers' actions were reasonable.
They noted that neither officer identified the type of knife Szuflita
used, and that it could have been a plastic one, and not put the
officers in imminent danger.
The judge said such an inference was not reasonable -- and likened it
to inferring that an officer who said a suspect had a "gun" actually
saw a water gun.
"Though the officers do not identify the precise type of knife at
issue, the officers do describe the instrument as both a 'knife' and a
'deadly weapon.' ... Perhaps it can be reasonably inferred that the
knife was as small knife, but even a small knife can be deadly."
The family said the officers never explained why lesser force, such as
a taser, was not used on Szuflita, making the court "left to wonder"
The judge noted that it was not the focus to examine whether a lesser
or alternative use of force should have been used.
"The focus of the inquiry in an excessive force case is whether the
force used was reasonable under the circumstances," the judge wrote in
After an investigation by the St. Joseph County Metro Homicide Unit,
Prosecutor Michael Dvorak concluded the officers had committed no
crimes and were justified in the shooting.
Morgan remains a patrol police officer; Slager is now a detective,
according to the police department.
Second case dismissed
A separate lawsuit, alleging excessive force and false arrest by
Morgan, was also recently dismissed by a federal judge.
Kristy Dean and Werner O'Connell alleged that Morgan used excessive
force on them when he responded to a call to their hotel room at
Quality Inn in South Bend on Oct. 24, 2008.
The pair alleged Morgan knocked on their hotel room, grabbed O'Connell
and pulled him out of the room, handcuffed him and stood on his spine.
Dean said Morgan hit her in the head, threw her against a wall several
times, and bashed her head against the wall, according to court
Morgan then arrested them for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest,
according to court documents.
As in the Szuflita case, the city filed a motion for summary judgment,
and the judge granted it on April 4, records show.
Im his order, U.S. District Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen wrote that Dean
and O'Connell's claims were not supported by video surveillance
cameras that captured the incident.
The video showed Morgan did not pull O'Connell out of the room by the
throat, that O'Connell was moving toward Morgan when Morgan grabbed
him by the shirt, and that Morgan did not throw Dean against the wall
"At no time does the video show Officer Morgan punching or kicking
either (Dean or O'Connell)," the judge wrote.
The judge also noted that the video showed the couple's dog, an
English bulldog, charged toward Morgan twice.
Dean and Werner claimed the surveillance video was edited and if shown
in its entirety it would corroborate their account, according to court
The judge said they presented no evidence to support that and he
considered it to be "an uninterrupted portrayal of the encounter."
The judge concluded: "The question is whether an officer's conduct was
objectively reasonable. Under the facts set forth by Officer Morgan
and substantiated by the surveillance video, no reasonable jury could
find the force excessive."
The judge also disagreed with Dean and O'Connell's claim that Morgan
arrested them without probable cause.
He noted that Morgan had been sent to the hotel by police dispatch,
and when he arrived found that an employee had been physically
threatened by O'Connell. He also noted that both Dean and O'Connell's
behavior met statutory definition of resisting law enforcement.
Thus, the judge ruled, "a reasonable officer in his position would
have believed that O'Connell and Dean committed criminal offenses
under Indiana law."
Staff writer Mary Kate Malone:
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