Williams v. Hall et al
OPINION AND ORDER: This case is DISMISSED pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A. Signed by Judge Robert L Miller, Jr on 9/9/2021. (Copy mailed to pro se party)(bas)
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 1 of 8
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF INDIANA
SOUTH BEND DIVISION
JOSHUA E. WILLIAMS,
CAUSE NO. 3:21-CV-556-RLM-MGG
DOMINIC HALL, et al.,
OPINION AND ORDER
Joshua E. Williams, a prisoner without a lawyer, filed a complaint alleging
South Bend police officers used excessive force when arresting him. ECF 1. The court
must review the merits of a prisoner complaint and dismiss it if the action is frivolous
or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks
monetary relief against a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. §
1915A. “A document filed pro se is to be liberally construed, and a pro se complaint,
however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal
pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quotation
marks and citations omitted).
Mr. Williams attached the police reports of the arrest to his complaint. The
Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide that “[a] copy of a written instrument that
is an exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all purposes.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
10(c). When the plaintiff references and relies on it, “the contents of that document
become part of the complaint and may be considered as such when the court
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 2 of 8
[determines] the sufficiency of the complaint.” Williamson v. Curran, 714 F.3d 432,
436 (7th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted). Therefore, the court uses the attached reports
to supplement, but not contradict, Mr. Williams’ allegations in the complaint.
Mr. Williams alleges that on July 31, 2019, a friend asked him and his stepson
to jump her car. ECF 1 at 5. It turns out, the car wouldn’t start because it was stolen
and On Star had ignition-locked the vehicle. ECF 1-1 at 4. Officer Briar Johnston was
investigating the stolen car and saw the two men try unsuccessfully to jump it. Id.
After they got back in their car to leave, Officer Johnston approached the vehicle,
ordered them to stop, and asked them what they were doing around the other car. Id.
Two other officers, Officer Dominic Hall and Officer Joseph Stitsworth, soon arrived
to assist. Officer Johnston describes Mr. Williams as “uncooperative” during the
encounter, ignoring orders to keep his hands on the dashboard and looking around as
if planning to flee. Id. at 5. He says Mr. Williams encouraged his stepson, who was
driving, to ignore the commands to park the car and give the officer the keys and
instead told him to drive away. Id. Mr. Williams’s stepson eventually complied with
the officer’s orders, and Officer Hall handcuffed him without incident. Id. at 1-2.
Mr. Williams alleges that he and his stepson “were exited out [of] the vehicle
at gunpoint.” ECF 1 at 5. He admits that he tried to flee from the officers when he got
out of the car but only made it a few feet before he was tackled. Id. Officer Johnston
reports that as Mr. Williams got out of the car, he pushed Officer Stitsworth and
himself out of the way and began running. ECF 1-1 at 5. Officer Johnston tackled
him, and he and Officer Stitsworth began wrestling with him. Id. Officer Hall came
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 3 of 8
to assist. Id. at 2, 17. Officer Hall relates that Mr. Williams was trying to force the
other two officers off of him and push himself up, and so Officer Hall punched him in
the face, and Officer Stitsworth Tased him with the prongs. Id. Both officers say that
the first Taser shot had no effect. Id. at 2, 5, 17. Officer Stitsworth Tased him again
with the second set of prongs. Id. at 17. Officer Stitsworth and Officer Johnston say
the second shot had no effect, Id. at 5, 17, and Officer Hall describes that he “felt [Mr.
Williams’] body momentarily seize up but by the time we hit the ground he was
actively resisting again.” Id. at 2. Mr. Williams says that he was in severe pain and
dazed from the punch to the face and the two Taser shots at this time, but he was
still resisting out of panic and fear of being hurt or even killed. ECF 1 at 6.
At this point, Officer Hall was able to secure Mr. Williams’ head, left shoulder,
and left hand in a modified side headlock. ECF 1-1 at 2. The officers still couldn’t cuff
his hand, and so Officer Hall delivered three hammer-strike blows to Mr. Williams’s
forehead, which stopped Mr. Williams long enough for the officers to secure one of his
hands in handcuffs. Id. Mr. Williams says the blows split his forehead and made his
head bounce off the pavement. ECF 1 at 6. But he continued to resist and didn’t allow
his other hand to be cuffed. Id.; ECF 1-1 at 2.
Several things happened during this struggle. Mr. Williams’s pants came
down, exposing his bare buttocks and genitals, and a gun fell out of his waistband.
ECF 1 at 6; ECF 1-1 at 2, 5, 17. Mr. Williams claims that one of the officers “yank[ed]
down” his pants past his thigh area. ECF 1 at 6. Officer Johnston writes, “[a]s the
fight ensued, Joshua’s pants fell down to his thigh area.” ECF 1-1 at 5. Mr. Williams
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 4 of 8
further alleges that the officers twisted his legs and “snatch[ed] his shoes off his feet,”
injuring his right knee, which was later diagnosed with a torn PCL. ECF 1 at 6.
According to Officer Johnston, Mr. Williams was still actively resisting after
the gun was spotted, and wouldn’t allow his right hand to be cuffed, so Officer
Johnston used Officer Stitsworth’s discarded Taser to drive stun Mr. Williams on his
buttock, which was the only exposed muscle group at the time. ECF 1-1 at 5. Then
the other two officers were able to finish handcuffing Mr. Williams. Id. at 2, 17. Mr.
Williams alleges that the last Taser strike caused him to seize up and move
involuntarily, scraping his genitals and buttocks on the pavement. ECF 1 at 7.
“A claim that an officer employed excessive force in arresting a person is
evaluated under the Fourth Amendment’s objective-reasonableness standard.”
Abbott v. Sangamon Cnty., 705 F.3d 706, 724 (7th Cir. 2013). The question in Fourth
Amendment excessive use of force cases is “whether the officers’ actions are
‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them,
without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S.
386, 397 (1989). “The test of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment is not
capable of precise definition or mechanical application.” Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520,
559 (1979). The question is whether the totality of the circumstances justifies the
officers’ actions. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. at 396. The “reasonableness” of a
particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on
the scene, rather than with the perfect vision of hindsight. “Not every push or shove,
even if it may later seem unnecessary in the peace of a judge’s chambers,” violates
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 5 of 8
the Fourth Amendment. Id. An officer’s use of force is unreasonable if, judging from
the totality of the circumstances at the time of the arrest, the officer uses greater
force than was reasonably necessary to effectuate the arrest. Gonzalez v. City of
Elgin, 578 F.3d 526, 539 (7th Cir. 2009). “Factors relevant to the reasonableness
inquiry include the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect poses an
immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether [the suspect] is
actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight.” Williams v. Brooks,
809 F.3d 936, 944 (7th Cir. 2016) (quotation marks omitted).
Mr. Williams hasn’t plausibly alleged that the officers used excessive force
during the arrest. Mr. Williams admits that he was resisting arrest throughout the
entire encounter, which allowed the officers some license to use force to effectuate the
arrest. Each of the uses or displays of force was reasonable in light of Mr. Williams’s
continued resistance. And the safety of the officers and every onlooker was threatened
once the gun was discovered.
For Officer Johnston to order Mr. Williams and his stepson out of the car at
gunpoint was not unreasonable. They were suspected of being involved with a stolen
car, Officer Johnston was alone when he first approached the car, and the men
weren’t complying with his orders to put the car in park. See Williams v. City of
Champaign, 524 F.3d 826, 828 (7th Cir. 2008) (noting it was “prudent” for police to
assume suspected robber might be armed and to approach van with gun drawn).
The punch to the face and hammer strikes were reasonable under the
circumstances: Mr. Williams was actively fighting the officers’ attempts to arrest him.
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 6 of 8
See Duran v. Sirgedas, 240 F. App’x 104, 118 (7th Cir. 2007) (no excessive force where
officer struck suspect in leg with baton and punched him in the head with a closed
fist, where suspect struggled with officers and bit one of them); Prymer v. Ogden, 29
F.3d 1208, 1210, 1216 (7th Cir. 1994) (kneeling on arrestee's back and several kicks
to the ribs found objectively reasonable where arrestee resisted arrest and tried to
strike officers). The first Taser strike was reasonable. See Abbott v. Sangamon Cnty.,
705 F.3d 706, 727 (7th Cir. 2013) (“Courts generally hold that the use of a taser
against an actively resisting suspect either does not violate clearly established law or
is constitutionally reasonable.” (collecting cases)). It is undisputed that the first Taser
strike was ineffective, so another strike is not unreasonable as Mr. Williams
continued to resist. And the final Taser strike in drive stun mode was reasonable in
light of the continued struggle to handcuff Mr. Williams, particularly once the
unsecured gun was discovered. See Dockery v. Blackburn, 911 F.3d 458, 463 (7th Cir.
2018) (granting officer qualified immunity for administering four Taser shots in less
than a minute during arrest of actively resisting subject). Mr. Williams doesn’t
dispute that he continued to struggle, and his subjective reasons why he didn’t submit
are irrelevant to analyzing the objective reasonableness of the officers’ actions. See
id. (“Excessive-force claims are evaluated against a standard of objective
reasonableness. Whether [plaintiff] actually intended to resist does not matter. What
matters is how a reasonable officer would construe the circumstances.”).
The allegations about the officer pulling Mr. Williams’s pants down gives the
court pause. Courts are careful to protect a person’s privacy when exposed genitals
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 7 of 8
are at issue. Cf. United States v. Brown, 233 F. App’x 564, 569 (7th Cir. 2007) (noting
one factor in the reasonableness of a search is whether a suspect’s private parts are
exposed to onlookers). Given the ongoing struggle and discovery of a gun in the
waistband, the court won’t second-guess the officer’s decision to pull down Mr.
Williams’s pants. There is no indication that it was done in a demeaning manner or
that Mr. Williams continued to be exposed once he submitted to the arrest.
Officers don’t have an unlimited license to use any and all force they wish just
because a suspect resists arrest. “Force is reasonable only when exercised in
proportion to the threat posed, and as the threat changes, so too should the degree of
force. Force also becomes increasingly severe the more often it is used; striking a
resisting suspect once is not the same as striking him ten times.” Cyrus v. Town of
Mukwonago, 624 F.3d 856, 863 (7th Cir. 2010) (citations omitted). Even looking at
the force used cumulatively, this complaint doesn’t allege unnecessary repeated
applications of force. Nor did the officers continued to use force after Mr. Williams
“The usual standard in civil cases is to allow defective pleadings to be
corrected, especially in early stages, at least where amendment would not be futile,”
Abu-Shawish v. United States, 898 F.3d 726, 738 (7th Cir. 2018), but “courts have
broad discretion to deny leave to amend where . . . the amendment would be futile.”
Hukic v. Aurora Loan Servs., 588 F.3d 420, 432 (7th Cir. 2009). Amendment of this
complaint would be futile. Mr. Williams’s account of the event is mostly consistent
with the police reports attached to his complaint, and so the material facts are
USDC IN/ND case 3:21-cv-00556-RLM-MGG document 5 filed 09/09/21 page 8 of 8
undisputed. A plaintiff can plead himself out of court if he pleads facts that preclude
relief. See Edwards v. Snyder, 478 F.3d 827, 830 (7th Cir. 2007); McCready v. Ebay,
Inc., 453 F.3d 882, 888 (7th Cir. 2006). Although Mr. Williams’ injuries are
unfortunate, the complaint doesn’t allege that the police officers used force beyond
what was reasonably necessary to subdue him while he was actively resisting arrest
in the presence of an unsecured gun.
For these reasons, this case is DISMISSED pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A.
SO ORDERED on September 9, 2021
s/ Robert L. Miller, Jr.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?