Federal Judge Refuses to Toss Peter Matwijiw Suit against Sheriff Keith Nygren & Deputy Robert Chamberlain

Rockford Federal Judge Frederick Kopola has refused to dismiss another case filed against the McHenry County Sheriff’s Department. You can read his May 4, 2012, decision below (some paragraphs have been broken up in order to make the text easier to read):

Plaintiff, Peter Matwijiw, has filed a six-count complaint against defendants, McHenry County, McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren, and McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Chamberlain, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. In the complaint, plaintiff alleges that Chamberlain

  • seized plaintiff without having reasonable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity, in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights (Count I);
  • falsely arrested plaintiff without legal justification or probable cause, in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights (Count II);
  • used excessive force during the arrest, in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights (Count III); and
  • committed the tort of malicious prosecution, in violation of state law, when he instituted charges against plaintiff for obstructing a peace officer and resisting a peace officer without having probable cause (Count IV).

Keith Nygren

Plaintiff also alleges

  • that Sheriff Nygren is liable for Chamberlain’s malicious prosecution pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior (Count V); and
  • that McHenry County is liable to pay any compensatory damages in this case pursuant to the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10/9-102 (Count VI).

Currently before the court is defendants’ motion to dismiss, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), in which they argue that Chamberlain is entitled to qualified immunity on Counts I, II, and III.

Defendants also argue that, if those counts are dismissed, this court should also refuse to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims.

For the reasons stated below, the motion to dismiss is denied.

I. BACKGROUND

In the complaint, plaintiff alleges the following facts, which are taken as true for purposes of the motion to dismiss.

On July 3, 2009, plaintiff was at his home in Woodstock, Illinois. At approximately 1:00 p.m., Chamberlain arrived at plaintiff’s home in response to a 911 call and spoke to plaintiff, who was outside in front of his home.

Plaintiff asked Chamberlain why he was there, and Chamberlain told plaintiff that he was there to investigate a 911 call.

Plaintiff told Chamberlain that nobody had called 911 and that it must be a mistake.

Although unknown to plaintiff at the time, plaintiff’s sister had accidentally dialed 911.

Chamberlain told plaintiff that there had been a 911 call and that he needed to check the home. Plaintiff told Chamberlain that he would check the home, and then he turned from Chamberlain and began walking towards his home.

At that point, Chamberlain grabbed plaintiff from behind and slammed him into a car.

Chamberlain also knocked plaintiff to the ground and slammed a knee into plaintiff’s back.

Chamberlain then handcuffed plaintiff and began to twist and pull on the handcuffs causing plaintiff extreme pain.

Plaintiff was subsequently transported the McHenry County Jail and charged with obstructing a police officer and resisting a peace officer.

After a two-day trial, plaintiff was found not guilty on both counts.

II. ANALYSIS

In evaluating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts the well-pleaded facts as true and construes the complaint in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Reynolds v. CB Sports Bar, Inc., 623 F.3d 1143, 1146 (7th Cir. 2010). Although “detailed factual allegations” are not required, the plaintiff must allege facts that, when “accepted as true . . . state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotation marks omitted).

Here, defendants do not directly challenge the sufficiency of the complaint, but rather contend that Chamberlain is immune from liability based on qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity insulates public officials from liability if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009). “Claims of qualified immunity involve two inquiries:

  1. whether the official violated a constitutional or statutory right, and
  2. whether the right was clearly established at the time of the alleged misconduct.”

Gonzalez v. Vill. of W.Milwaukee, 671 F.3d 649, 657 (7th Cir. 2012). The court can, in its discretion, address these inquiries in any order it deems appropriate. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 236.

Because qualified immunity is an immunity from suit, not merely a defense to liability, the Supreme Court has “stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation.” Id. at 231-32. However, the Seventh Circuit has “cautioned that the rule that qualified immunity must be resolved at the earliest possible stage must be tempered by the notice pleading requirements of Rule 8.” Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1090 (7th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). “Because an immunity defense usually depends on the facts of the case, dismissal at the pleading stage is inappropriate.” Alvarado v. Litscher, 267 F.3d 648, 651 (7th Cir. 2001); see also Jacobs v. City of Chi., 215 F.3d 758, 765 n.3 (7th Cir. 2000) (discussing the “tension in this area” but noting that, “in many cases, the existence of qualified immunity will depend on the particular facts of a given case”).

Here, the facts as plead in the complaint and taken as true for purposes of this motion do not support Chamberlain’s claim of qualified immunity.

As for Counts I and II, plaintiff claims that Chamberlain subjected him to an unreasonable seizure and a false arrest in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

For purposes of this motion, these two related claims can be analyzed together, as both claims would be defeated by a showing that Chamberlain had probable cause to arrest plaintiff.

“In order to have probable cause for an arrest, law enforcement agents must reasonably believe, in light of the facts and circumstances within their knowledge at the time of the arrest, that the suspect had committed or was committing an offense.” Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 776 (7th Cir. 2003). However, for purposes of the second prong of the qualified immunity defense, a defendant need only show that he had “arguable probable cause.” McComas v. Brickley, 673 F.3d 722, 725 (7th Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted). “Arguable probable cause exists when a reasonable officer could mistakenly have believed that he had probable cause to make the arrest.” Id.; see also Wheeler v. Lawson, 539 F.3d 629, 639 (7th Cir. 2008) (“Qualified immunity protects those officers who make a reasonable error in determining whether there is probable cause to arrest an individual.”).

In this case, because it is only at the pleading stage, the court is unable to determine what facts and circumstances were subjectively known to Chamberlain at the time he first seized plaintiff by grabbing him from behind and slamming him into a car.

Therefore, the court can only analyze whether Chamberlain had arguable probable cause based on the facts as alleged in the complaint.

Under those facts, plaintiff did nothing that would cause a reasonable officer to believe that he had probable cause to make an arrest.

Rather, plaintiff simply discussed with Chamberlain whether there had been a 911 call from inside his home, explained that he believed there must be some mistake, and then volunteered to go investigate.

At no point during this interaction, at least according to the facts alleged in the complaint, did Chamberlain command plaintiff to stop walking towards the home or tell plaintiff that he was not allowed to go inside the home by himself, and there is no indication that plaintiff ever specifically refused to allow Chamberlain to enter the home.

Thus, although not pressed by defendants (perhaps because of plaintiff’s eventual acquittal),when plaintiff turned and began to walk toward the house, as plead in the complaint, there was no basis to believe that he was resisting or obstructing a peace officer in violation of 720 ILCS 5/31-1(a). FN1

Rather than argue resisting or obstructing, defendants argue in their motion that Chamberlain acted reasonably under the circumstances because Chamberlain “had no idea of Plaintiff’s intentions or . . . whether someone inside was already dead or in danger or whether Plaintiff was going inside for a weapon or to cause more harm.”

However, even assuming these facts from outside the complaint are true, this does not demonstrate that Chamberlain had arguable probable cause.

While it is arguable that the 911 call coupled with plaintiff’s apparent ambivalence may have caused a reasonable officer to become suspicious of the situation such that further investigation would be warranted, at the time plaintiff was seized Chamberlain could only speculate that plaintiff had committed or was about to commit some undetermined crime inside the house.

Thus, although Chamberlain may have had sufficient exigent circumstances to justify a search of the home, he did not, based solely on the facts alleged in the complaint, have reasonable suspicion or arguable probable cause to stop or arrest plaintiff. See United States v. Oglesby, 597 F.3d 891, 894 (7th Cir. 2010) (explaining that “reasonable suspicion requires more than a hunch but less than probable cause” (quotation marks omitted)); United States v. Cellitti, 387 F.3d 618, 624 (7th Cir. 2004) (concluding that “speculation . . . is insufficient to establish probable cause”).

Defendant’s reliance on United States v. Elder, 466 F.3d 1090 (7th Cir. 2006), does not change the court’s analysis. In that case, a 911 caller “told the dispatcher ‘I think we got meth out here’ and added that ‘suspicious’ people were ‘flying like quails’” before he hung up. Id. at 1090. When the dispatcher called back, no one answered. Id. Thereafter, two officers were dispatched to a farm and knocked on the front and rear doors of the farm house, but no one answered even though the officers saw lights and heard a TV from within the house. Id. The officers then looked through an open doorway of a nearby outbuilding and saw what appeared to be a laboratory. Id. They entered the building in search of the caller and although they did not find him, what they saw and smelled from inside the building provided evidence against the defendant. Id. In response to the defendant’s argument that the evidence from within the outbuilding should have been suppressed, the Seventh Circuit held that entry into the outbuilding was reasonable. Id. at 1091. The Court explained:

The officers acted sensibly in attempting to assure the caller’s safety. The fact that drug dealers often use guns and knives to protect their operations created a possibility that violence had been done, or that someone was still there and lying in wait. So considerations of safety-the caller’s and the officers’-made a look-see prudent.

Id.
This case is distinguishable from Elder on a number of grounds.

First, Elder dealt with the reasonableness of the search of the outbuilding, not whether there was arguable probable cause for an arrest. As discussed above, Chamberlain may have been entitled to search plaintiff’s house in order to ensure the safety of the caller, but that issue is not before the court.

Second, because the officers in Elder had reason to believe that drugs were involved, from both the information provided on the 911 call and from what the officers observed through the open door, and because “drug dealers often use guns and knives to protect their operations,” id., there were valid and articulable safety considerations.

By contrast, in this case, there was nothing more than a hunch that someone might be injured merely because a 911 call had been made and plaintiff claimed to not know anything about it.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the Seventh Circuit did not rely exclusively on the fact that the 911 caller had hung up in determining that the entry into the outbuilding was reasonable, whereas in this case defendants would like the court to adopt a blanket rule that an officer can arrest anybody who is present at the location of a 911 call/hang up because of the possibility that the person was involved in injuring the caller.

Finally, defendant argues that “[i]t is implausible, even viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, that a conscientious police officer would just let this unidentified male walk back into the house when he turned away from the police officer when informed of an emergency.”

The problem with this argument, however, is it assumes that there were only two options – let plaintiff return to the house alone or grab him from behind and slam him into a car.

In reality, there were a number of other options available to Chamberlain, including

  • commanding plaintiff to stop as he began to walk away,
  • explaining to plaintiff that he could not enter the home without Chamberlain, or
  • going into the house himself. FN2

Because Chamberlain chose the option that involved arresting plaintiff without probable cause, he is not entitled to qualified immunity under the facts alleged in the complaint.

Because defendants cannot establish based on the facts in the complaint that Chamberlain had arguable probable cause to arrest plaintiff, they likewise cannot show that Chamberlain is entitled to qualified immunity on the excessive force claim in Count III.

Determining whether the amount of force used to effectuate a seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment “requires a careful balancing of the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.”

Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989) (quotation marks omitted). Because “the right to make an arrest or investigatory stop necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to effect it,” the court must determine the reasonableness of the force used under the totality of the circumstances.

Id. In this case, however, because the court has already determined that Chamberlain did not have the right to make an arrest of plaintiff under the facts alleged in the complaint, he necessarily did not have the right to use any amount of force in order to seize plaintiff.

Therefore, defendants’ qualified immunity defense to Count III is not proper at this stage of the proceedings and does not warrant a dismissal of Count III.

III. CONCLUSION

For all these reasons, the court denies defendants’ motion to dismiss Counts I, II, and III of plaintiff’s complaint. Likewise, their request for the court to relinquish jurisdiction over the supplemental claims is denied as the federal claims are still pending.

= = = = =
FN1. “In Illinois, the crime of resisting a peace officer involves the commission of a physical act of resistance or obstruction that impedes, hinders, interrupts, prevents, or delays the performance of the officer’s duties, such as by going limp or forcefully resisting arrest.” Brooks v. City of Aurora, Ill., 653 F.3d 478, 484 (7th Cir. 2011) (quotation marks omitted).

Here, the facts alleged in the complaint only show that plaintiff walked away from Chamberlain after a brief discussion.

Although it is possible to resist arrest by walking away after being told you are under arrest, see Williams v. Adams, No. 05 C 646, 2007 WL 2298417, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 3, 2007), there is nothing in the complaint to suggest that plaintiff was told he was under arrest at the time he turned and walked toward the house.

FN2. The Seventh Circuit has held that, under certain circumstances, “911 calls reporting an emergency can be enough to support warrantless searches under the exigent circumstances exception.” United States v. Richardson, 208 F.3d 626, 630 (7th Cir. 2000).


Comments

Federal Judge Refuses to Toss Peter Matwijiw Suit against Sheriff Keith Nygren & Deputy Robert Chamberlain — 3 Comments

  1. Is anyone surprised??

    This is a pattern in this department.

    Beating up the elderly Pavlin couple.

    How much is that one going to cost us?

    It is not Zane Seipler that is costing us money, it is Nygren and his band of thugs.

    If things are done properly you do not have all of these lawsuits to fight.

    This is not going to stop as long as Nygren is there.

    He is trying to push Andy Zink on us as his replacement.

    He will not be any better and will just follow Nygren’s instructions and cover for Nygren like he as always done.

    That is the only way to get ahead in that dept.

    Seems to me that Zane Seipler just want the dept. cleaned out and run properly.

    Have many payouts have we made in settlements for so many suits??

    WAKE UP PEOPLE!!!

  2. Checked out the NWH.

    NOTHING ABOUT THIS — what a surprise.

    Skinners article might force them to print as often happens.

    We will see.

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