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McKnight v. Taylor

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

September 29, 2016

APRIL N McKNIGHT as Personal Representative of the Estate of Eugene C. McKnight, deceased, APRIL N McKNIGHT on behalf of Z.K.M., minor son of Eugene C. McKnight, Plaintiffs,
JACOB TAYLOR, Defendant.


          Sarah Evans Barker, Judge, United States District Court.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendant Jacob Taylor's (“Officer Taylor”) Motion for Summary Judgment on Counts I and III of Plaintiffs' Complaint [Dkt. No. 76], filed on February 15, 2016, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the following reasons, we GRANT Defendant's motion.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         This case arises out of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Eugene McKnight. On July 10, 2011, McKnight was shot and killed by Officer Jacob Taylor, a SWAT officer with the Evansville Police Department (“EPD”), after an approximately fifty-minute standoff at 403 Read Street in Evansville, IN. Thereafter, on July 9, 2013, April McKnight, as personal representative of the Estate of Eugene McKnight and on behalf of Eugene's minor son (identified as ZKM), [1] filed suit alleging that Officer Taylor used excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Compl. at ¶ 27.[2]

         A. Procedural History

         On March 18, 2015, we granted summary judgment in Defendants' favor on all counts except Counts I and III-Plaintiff's excessive force claims against Officer Taylor. See Dkt. 51. In denying Defendants' motion for summary judgment on these Counts, we held that “the none of the circumstances of the standoff-other than McKnight's putative possession of a gun-would furnish grounds for a reasonable use of deadly force.” Id. at 11 (emphasis added). With regard to McKnight's putative possession of a gun, we held that the reasonableness of Officer Taylor's belief that McKnight was wielding a gun at the time of their confrontation had been placed at issue by Plaintiff and that we lacked sufficient evidence to resolve that question as matter of law. Id. at 10. Our order provided a non-exclusive list of unknown facts relevant to that determination, including: the size and shape of the object McKnight was holding when he was shot; the lighting conditions at the time McKnight was shot; Officer Taylor's exact distance from McKnight and his line of sight at the time of the shooting; and the manner in which McKnight was holding the object in his hand. Id.

         Following entry of our order denying summary judgment on Plaintiff's excessive force claims against Officer Taylor, discovery was reopened at the request of Plaintiff's newly-acquired counsel and the parties were granted an opportunity to file supplemental dispositive motions. Dkt. 73.Thereafter, on February 15, 2016, Officer Taylor again moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's excessive force claims, this time focusing on the facts highlighted by our prior order and unearthed in discovery. See Dkt. 76.

         In our prior order, we detailed the entire factual scenario underlying this litigation with particular attention to the reasonableness of Officer Taylor's belief that at the time of their encounter Eugene McKnight was holding a gun and presenting an imminent danger to him and others. Here, we provide an annotated version of those facts which are relevant to a determination of the reasonableness of Officer Taylor's belief.

         B. Officer Taylor's Involvement

         At approximately 2:13 p.m. on July 10, 2011, Officer Taylor received a text message from the EPD SWAT Team Commander notifying him of an on-going situation involving a barricaded gunman at 403 Read Street and asking whether Taylor was available to respond. Officer Taylor responded that he was available, after which he reported to the EPD command building, where he prepared the SWAT Unit truck and drove to the scene of the standoff. Enroute, Officer Taylor was informed by police radio transmissions that the barricaded suspect was firing shots at the police on scene. When Officer Taylor arrived at the scene, he stopped the truck just south of the residence, where he could hear officers shouting commands to the suspect to come out with his hands up. Sergeant Hoover, another officer on scene, informed Officer Taylor that the suspect had fired shots from the second story window and instructed Taylor to equip himself with a ballistics shield and prepare his 40 mm launcher, a non-lethal weapon that fires sponge rounds. While gathering his equipment, Officer Taylor heard what he believed was a gunshot coming from the second story of the residence. He delivered the ballistics shield to Officer Knight and was informed that the suspect, Eugene McKnight, was suffering from suicidal behavior and had been inhaling paint-thinners and consuming alcohol. He was also informed that McKnight had shot himself and had nearly struck an officer in the head with one of his prior gunshots.

         Equipped with his 40 mm launcher and his standard-issue Heckler & Koch .45 caliber rifle, Officer Taylor located himself to the rear of Officers Knight and Montgomery. Officer Knight held the ballistic shield; Officer Montgomery took cover behind Officer Knight and to the right; and Officer Taylor stood behind Officer Knight and to the left. Together, the three officers huddled against the corner of an apartment building adjacent to the home, with Officer Montgomery closest to the building and Officer Taylor farthest away.

         A few seconds after Officer Taylor positioned himself behind Officer Knight, Eugene McKnight emerged from the house onto the front porch. Although Officer Taylor could not personally see the door of the home-he was crouched down unzipping the bag containing his 40 mm launcher-he heard other officers begin shouting to McKnight to “show his hands” and “drop the gun.” Officer Taylor heard the other officers command McKnight to “drop the gun” at least four times before he stood up and peered around Officer Knight to view the scene.

         From that position, Officer Taylor was standing in direct sunlight and positioned less than thirty feet from the front porch on which McKnight was standing, motionless in the shade of the home's awning.[3] McKnight, who was covered in blood from his self-inflicted wounds, assumed “a kind of crouched position with his right hand holding the door open and his left hand by his thigh.” Def.'s Br. at ¶¶ 110, 150. The officers continued to shout commands to him ordering him to drop the gun and show his hands, but McKnight remained motionless and stared out at them blankly. In McKnight's left hand, the officers saw a “silver and black” object that appeared to be approximately five or six inches long. Officer Knight, Officer Taylor, Officer Montgomery, and Sergeant Hoover all reported thinking that the silver and black object was a medium-sized handgun.

         To Officer Taylor, the silver and black object looked like a handgun with a silver slide and black rail, much like other handguns he had seen in the past, and the stance in which McKnight had positioned himself-a crouched stance with a low center of gravity with his left foot forward and his right foot still in the doorway-looked to Officer Taylor like a shooting position. Seeing McKnight positioned in an “aggressive bladed stance” and holding what appeared to be a silver and black handgun, Officer Taylor shouldered his Heckler & Koch .45 caliber rifle and ordered McKnight to drop the gun. McKnight gave no response to the command, remaining motionless on the front porch. Seeing no response, Officer Taylor fired a ...

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