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Howell v. Smith

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 10, 2017

Thom D. Howell, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Shawn Smith, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued September 29, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 2:13-cv-00045-JTM-PRC - James T. Moody, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Ripple and Williams, Circuit Judges.


         On May 15, 2011, Officer Shawn Smith of the Highland, Indiana Police Department received a call from his dispatcher, alerting him to a road rage incident involving the discharge of a firearm. He later came upon a car matching the description and conducted a "high-risk traffic stop."[1] Officer Smith placed Mr. Howell, the occupant of the car, in handcuffs and detained him until other officers brought the alleged victim to the scene.[2] The victim positively identified Mr. Howell and his vehicle as involved in the road rage incident. Nonetheless, the officers found no weapon and decided to release Mr. Howell. The whole episode lasted approximately thirty minutes.

         Mr. Howell initially brought this action in state court, alleging that the officers' treatment had aggravated a preexisting shoulder condition, which became worse with time and required multiple surgeries. Following the transfer of the proceedings from state to federal district court, [3] Officer Smith moved for summary judgment on the ground of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion, and Officer Smith filed this interlocutory appeal.[4]

         We respectfully disagree with the district court's decision to deny Officer Smith's immunity claim. In our view, Officer Smith's decision to place Mr. Howell, then implicated in a serious crime involving the discharge of a weapon, in handcuffs and to keep him in handcuffs until satisfied that he was not a threat did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, under the doctrine of qualified immunity, the federal count in the complaint must be dismissed. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case for further proceedings.




         Mr. Howell, a Navy veteran and high school teacher in his early sixties, has had multiple shoulder surgeries, including a complete replacement of his right shoulder. Prior to the encounter at issue in this appeal, he was able to stretch his right arm, to write on a blackboard, and to lift up to five or six pounds with his right arm. His left shoulder was in better condition; he usually was able to place his left arm behind his back.

         The stop at issue here took place on May 15, 2011. While Officer Smith was on routine patrol in the Town of Highland, Indiana, his dispatcher advised him of a reported road rage incident. According to the dispatcher, the victim had reported that the driver of a tan Trailblazer ahead of him on the road had fired at him while the two vehicles were traveling northbound on Kennedy Avenue in Griffith, Indiana. The dispatcher described the suspect driver, alone in the vehicle, as a white male with facial hair and stated that the vehicle had an older Indiana blue license plate. Officer Smith later encountered a vehicle and driver matching this description. He activated his patrol car's overhead lights and stopped the car.

         Officer Smith treated this stop as a "high-risk traffic stop": He ordered Mr. Howell to step out of his vehicle, to place his hands on his head, to walk backwards toward him, and then to kneel on the ground.[5] Mr. Howell complied with all orders. While Mr. Howell was kneeling, Officer Smith handcuffed his hands behind his back. He then asked Mr. Howell whether he had been involved in a road rage incident; Mr. Howell denied any involvement. Officer Smith placed Mr. Howell in the back of the squad car.

         There is some disagreement as to what, if anything, Mr. Howell said as he was placed in handcuffs. According to Officer Smith, Mr. Howell "did not complain of any pain in his shoulders or arms nor did he complain of any pain, soreness or injuries to his shoulders at any time."[6] Mr. Howell, on the other hand, maintains that he told the officer that "I can't stretch my arm behind my back that way"[7] and that he "had just had surgery with [his] shoulder."[8] He additionally contends that he later told an officer, other than Officer Smith, that he was "sore"[9] or in "pain, "[10] although he is inconsistent on the exact language that he used and unclear as to when this conversation took place, other than stating that it was with a Griffith police officer.[11]

         Officer Smith radioed Sergeant Banasiak, who was with the victim at a nearby shopping center or strip mall. He asked whether the stopped vehicle was the one from which a shot had been fired. The victim "replied that it sounded like it."[12]When Sergeant Banasiak and the victim arrived at the scene shortly thereafter, the latter confirmed the identification.

         Officer Smith searched Mr. Howell and did not find a weapon. Mr. Howell also provided consent to search his vehicle, but a search failed to locate a firearm. Throughout this time, the victim remained adamant about his identification and advised both Sergeant Banasiak and Officer Smith that Mr. Howell was the individual who had shot at him in Griffith. Attempting to explain the absence of a firearm, the victim suggested that Mr. Howell must have thrown his weapon out of his vehicle.

         Nonetheless, once the officers ascertained all of these facts, which involved removing Mr. Howell from the car several times, Sargent Dawes of the Griffith Police Department, in whose jurisdiction the offense would have taken place, decided to release Mr. Howell.

         The entire detention lasted approximately thirty minutes. At no point did Officer Smith feel threatened in any way. Mr. Howell maintains that, since his detention, he has suffered mental anguish and has undergone multiple shoulder-related surgeries.


         Mr. Howell brought this action, alleging a "violation of his State and Federal Constitutional Rights, as provided by the Indiana and Federal Constitutions, Statutes and case law."[13]Relying on state law causes of action, Mr. Howell also sought damages for battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of ...

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