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McKnight v. City of Evansville

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Evansville Division

March 18, 2015

APRIL N McKNIGHT as Personal Representative of the Estate of Eugene C. McKnight, deceased, et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
THE CITY OF EVANSVILLE, et al. Defendants.

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

SARAH EVANS BARKER, District Judge.

This cause is before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 32], filed on August 8, 2014 pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the reasons set forth below, the motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

Factual and Procedural Background

This lawsuit arises out of a tragic incident in which an officer of the Defendant Evansville Police Department shot and killed Eugene C. McKnight, a resident of that city.

The background facts leading up to the shooting on July 10, 2011 are largely undisputed.[1] On the evening of July 10, Evansville Police Department (EPD) officer Matthew Knight responded to a reported burglary at 403 Read Street in Evansville. ¶ 9.[2] 403 Read Street is a house in the midst of a residential area, surrounded by other houses and apartment buildings. ¶ 10. When Officer Knight arrived at the house, he saw a man later identified as Timothy McKnight-Eugene's uncle-sitting on the porch; Timothy told the officer that Eugene was inside the house. ¶¶ 11-14. Timothy also told the officers that both he and his nephew Eugene had been drinking alcohol and consuming toluene, and that both were "messed up." ¶ 19. Shortly after two more officers arrived outside, they heard a gunshot coming from the second story of the house. ¶ 17. A second shot fired from the house struck the door of one of the squad cars, several feet away from where one of the officers was standing. ¶ 24. The officers outside the house then heard a third shot come from within. ¶ 26. None of the officers were struck or injured.

As the officers established a perimeter around the house, Officer Stacy Dutschke reached McKnight's ex-wife April McKnight by phone; April expressed her belief that McKnight was suicidal. ¶ 32. McKnight's mother and father arrived outside the house, and his father spoke to McKnight on a cell phone before passing the phone to Officer Dan Hoehn. ¶ 36. As Hoehn talked to McKnight on the phone, he heard another gunshot and a cry of pain as McKnight evidently shot himself in the foot-McKnight told Hoehn that the police had just shot him, but Hoehn reminded him that only McKnight had been shooting since the standoff started. ¶¶ 37-39. McKnight began yelling and dropped the phone; when he picked it up again and resumed talking to Hoehn, he told him that he had shot himself twice and was now bleeding to death. ¶¶ 40-41. Hoehn pled with McKnight to come outside and obtain medical attention, but McKnight hung up, explaining that he had other calls to make. ¶¶ 41-42. Hoehn attempted to call McKnight back several times, but received a busy signal. ¶ 44.

McKnight's brother Anthony and his aunt Teresa McGraw subsequently spoke to McKnight by phone. ¶¶ 46-52. McGraw passed the phone to Officer Joe Phelps, who told McKnight that an ambulance was approaching that could take McKnight to the hospital; McKnight still refused to leave the house, however, stating that he was unwilling to go to jail. ¶¶ 54-55.

At some point during this standoff, the EPD SWAT commander sent a text message to SWAT team officer Jacob Taylor asking him to report to the scene. ¶ 56. Taylor, an experienced SWAT officer who had served in that capacity for over nine years, retrieved his equipment and drove to the house. ¶¶ 58-60. While en route, he listened to police radio traffic concerning the standoff, and heard discussion of shots having been fired. ¶ 63.[3] When he arrived, the SWAT commander directed Taylor to prepare his 40 mm launcher, a non-lethal weapon that fires sponge rounds. ¶ 66. Equipped with his 40 mm launcher and his standard-issue Heckler & Koch.45 caliber rifle, Taylor established himself at an "inner perimeter" at the corner of the lot adjacent to the house. ¶¶ 67, 71.

Only seconds after Taylor had set up this position, McKnight emerged from the house. ¶ 73. As he unzipped the bag containing his 40 mm launcher, Taylor heard other officers shouting at McKnight to "show his hands" and "drop the gun." ¶ 74. When Taylor saw McKnight, McKnight was standing motionless on the porch in what Taylor later described as "a kind of crouched position with his right hand holding the door open and his left hand by his thigh." ¶ 75. McKnight did not respond to the officers' shouted commands; instead, he remained motionless and stared blankly. ¶ 87.

As McKnight stood on the porch near the doorway, he held in his left hand a "silver and black" object that both Knight and Taylor reported thinking was a gun. ¶¶ 76, 84. Upon seeing this, Knight alerted the other officers and commanded McKnight to "drop the gun!" ¶¶ 84-85. To Taylor, the object looked like other guns he had seen in the past, and he reported being certain it was a handgun. ¶¶ 76-77. Taylor twice ordered McKnight to drop the gun and put his hands above his head; McKnight made no response, and remained motionless. ¶¶ 86-87.

Taylor stood up, shouldered his Heckler & Koch.45 caliber rifle, and fired a single shot that struck McKnight in the chest. McKnight flinched, retreated into the residence, and died shortly thereafter. ¶ 93. After SWAT team members sighted McKnight lying motionless on the ground floor of the house, medical staff entered and found him dead. ¶¶ 101-104. When the coroner's staff members arrived and moved McKnight, they discovered a silver and black mobile phone-but no gun-underneath his body. ¶ 106. A search of the upstairs area of the house, where McKnight had been standing when he fired shots earlier in the incident, located a Ruger 9 mm handgun. ¶ 105. The entire incident, from the arrival of the first EPD officer at the house to McKnight's death, lasted some 50 minutes. ¶ 109.

April McKnight, acting both as personal representative of McKnight's estate and on behalf of his minor son, filed suit on July 9, 2013 against the City of Evansville, chief of police Brad Hill in his official capacity, and Officer Jacob Taylor in his personal and official capacities. Docket No. 1.

Legal Analysis

Standard of ...


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