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Johnson v. City of Minneapolis

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

April 27, 2017

CITY OF MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA, a government entity and political subdivision of the State of Minnesota, and ROBERT HEIPLE, in his individual capacity acting under color of law as a Minneapolis Police Officer, Defendants.

          Peter J. Nickitas, PETER J. NIKITAS LAW OFFICE, L.L.C., for plaintiff.

          Brian Scott Carter and Lindsey E. Middlecamp, Assistant City Attorneys, for defendants.



         Plaintiff Catrina Johnson (“Johnson”) called 911 to request police response to a domestic dispute. Defendant Officer Robert Heiple (“Officer Heiple”) and Officer Scott Buck (“Officer Buck”) arrived at the scene. While executing a take-down maneuver on Johnson's son, Jareese Johnson (“Jareese”), Officer Heiple felt a pain in his leg while Johnson stood behind him. Officer Heiple assumed Johnson kicked him and arrested Johnson. Officer Heiple later determined the leg injury was not caused by Johnson and charges against Johnson were dismissed.

         Upon release, Johnson commenced this civil rights action against Officer Heiple and Defendant City of Minneapolis (collectively “Defendants”) alleging eight federal and state law claims. Defendants filed a motion for partial summary judgment as to five claims, arguing Officer Heiple is entitled to qualified immunity[1] based on arguable probable cause at the time of Johnson's arrest. Because the Court finds the totality of circumstances do not conclusively show Officer Heiple had arguable probable cause to arrest Johnson, the Court will deny Defendants' motion for partial summary judgment.


         On July 1, 2013, Johnson called 911. (Decl. of Peter J. Nickitas (“Nikitas Decl.”), Ex. A (“Johnson Dep.”)[2] at 30:24-31:5, Dec. 6, 2016, Docket No. 27.) Johnson requested assistance removing Jareese from her home. (Id. at 31:6-10.) Specifically, Johnson “did not feel safe” because Jareese was “cursing . . . and slamming doors” and Jareese had thrown Johnson's cane somewhere. (Id. at 31:22, 32:1-12.) When police arrived at Johnson's apartment, Johnson held a hammer because “Jareese had [her] in the corner.” (Id. at 66:10-12, 66:22-24.) Johnson testified she picked up the hammer before her neighbor, Mark Moriarty (“Moriarty”), heard the dispute and entered Johnson's apartment. (Id. at 66:15-20; 160:23-161:1.)

         Officer Heiple and Officer Buck arrived at Johnson's apartment in response to the 911 call. (Id., Ex. C (“Heiple Dep.”) at 18:16-23.) Johnson allowed the Officers into her apartment building. (Id. at 20:8-11; 21:13-14.) Johnson led the Officers down the hallway to her apartment where they encountered Jareese. (Id. at 20:16-20; 23:13-16.) The Officers questioned Johnson and Jareese separately. (Johnson Dep. at 63:20-64:23.) After Johnson informed Officer Buck that Jareese threatened Johnson and Johnson wanted Jareese removed from the home, Officer Buck went to the apartment building's hallway (directly in front of Johnson's apartment) and arrested Jareese. (Id. at 64:21-65:3, 65:15-17.) Jareese resisted and the Officers had to take Jareese down to the floor. (Id. at 65:1-66:6, 77:4-78:15.) At the time of the “take-down, ” Officer Buck faced the doorway to Johnson's apartment and Officer Heiple had his back to Johnson's apartment. (Id. at 83:1-14.) Johnson retreated further into her apartment to give the Officers room. (Id. at 77:18-79:18.)

         After the “take down, ” Officer Heiple felt a sharp pain like an “explosion” in his right calf. (Heiple Dep. at 27:4-8.) Although not seeing Johnson, Officer Heiple immediately assumed Johnson assaulted him. (Id. at 29:14-17; Aff. of Robert Heiple (“Heiple Aff.”) ¶ 4, Nov. 15, 2016, Docket No. 23.) Officer Heiple allegedly based his assumption on “Johnson's level of emotional and verbal distress before and during the arrest, ” Officer Heiple's “familiarity with . . . domestic disturbance calls, ” and his “genuine[] belie[f] [that] . . . Johnson had stomped or kicked [Officer Heiple] in the leg.” (Heiple Aff. ¶ 4.)

         After feeling pain in his right calf, Officer Heiple first confirmed with Officer Buck that Jareese was handcuffed and secured. (Nikitas Decl., Ex. E (“Buck Dep.”) at 31:21-33:21.) Officer Buck responded affirmatively. (Id.) Once Officer Buck had Jareese under control (id., Ex. B at 25; id., Ex. G (hereinafter “Moriarty Dep.”) at 11:22-12:6; Buck Dep. at 30:21-33:21), [3] Officer Heiple turned around and asked Johnson “[d]id you just kick me?” (Johnson Dep. at 83:22-23.) Johnson responded “no.” (Id. at 83:24.) Again, Officer Heiple accused Johnson of kicking him. (Id. at 83:25-84:15; Heiple Dep. at 32:2.) Johnson again denied kicking Officer Heiple and Officer Heiple placed Johnson under arrest. (Johnson Dep. at 84:2-3; see also Heiple Dep. at 32:8-9 (“After I had stood up and asked her [why did you kick me], yes, then I said ‘[y]ou're under arrest.'”).)

         There were several witnesses at the time Officer Heiple placed Johnson under arrest. Officer Buck, who “could see [Johnson]” during the “take down” (Buck Dep. at 32:22), did not see Johnson kick Officer Heiple. (Id. at 33:22-23; see also Aff. of Scott Buck (“Buck Aff.”) ¶ 4, Nov. 15, 2016, Docket No. 24.) But Officer Buck indicated Officer Heiple “acted consistent with a genuine belief that he had been kicked.” (Buck Aff. ¶ 4.) Officer Buck confirmed that Johnson denied kicking Officer Heiple, (Buck Dep. at 34:4-7), described Johnson as wearing a “nightgown, ” (id. at 47:13-16), and indicated he did not recall Johnson wearing “hard shoes, ” (id. at 48:11-20).

         Moriarty was also present during the arrest. Moriarty testified that, based on Johnson and Officer Heiple's location, “it couldn't add up” for Johnson to kick Officer Heiple. (Moriarty Dep. at 18:3.) Moriarty described that Johnson kicking Officer Heiple “would defy the laws of physics.” (Id. at 17:21.) Moriarty indicated Johnson “would have had to give some powerful kind of soccer kick . . . around the officer to kick his other side.” (Id. at 17:24-18:1.)

         Moriarty further testified that he confronted Officer Heiple about arresting Johnson. Moriarty contends he asked Officer Heiple “‘Are you sure she kicked you?'” and Officer Heiple responded “‘Yeah, she kicked me.'” (Id. at 18:13-14.) Still not convinced, Moriarty again inquired to Officer Heiple, stating “‘It doesn't seem to make sense that she could have. Are you absolutely sure?'” to which Officer Heiple said “‘It hurts . . . . Yeah.'” (Id. at 18:14-16.) Moriarty also described Johnson's appearance during the altercation as disabled, wearing “a slip, ” and not wearing “hard shoes.” (Id. at 10:21-11:2.) Moriarty explained Johnson's shoes were either “thongs” or “soft slipper[s].” (Id. at 11:5-6.)

         Finally, Jareese was on the ground during the interaction and did not testify Johnson kicked Officer Heiple. (See Aff. of Lindsey E. Middlecamp (“Middlecamp Aff.”), Ex. 4 at 63-64, Nov. 15, 2016, Docket No. 22.) But Jareese indicated ...

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