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Daily Court Reporter - Federal court upholds immunity for Wood County officer in excessive force claim


Federal court upholds immunity for Wood County officer in excessive force claim

ANNIE YAMSON, Daily Reporter Staff Writer

The United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a judgment granting qualified immunity to a Wood County police officer in an excessive force case.

The decision upheld the ruling of Judge Jeffrey James Helmick of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio at Toledo granting summary judgment to Deputy Jody Swoap of the Wood County Sheriff’s Office.

In an opinion authored by Judge Robert Cleland, who sat by designation on the 6th Circuit’s three-judge appellate panel, the reviewing court reminded readers to follow the reasonable orders of police.

“This Fourth Amendment excessive force claim arises from the familiar setting of an interaction between an officer and an angry, uncooperative citizen,” Cleland wrote. “The facts illustrate yet again why it is a bad idea to question and argue and to physically resist an investigating officer’s reasonable commands and directions.”

The plaintiff in the case was the estate of Robert Getz, administered by his wife, because Getz died due to unrelated reasons before the case made it to an appeal.

According to case summary, Swoap was sitting in his cruiser at about 7:20 p.m. on Nov. 27, 2011, near Bowling Green when he saw an oncoming car with only one operational headlight.

Swoap followed the vehicle, intending to conduct a stop, but the offending car did not immediately pull over after Swoap activated his overhead lights.

Instead, the driver, Getz, continued down the road until he pulled into a residential driveway, passed the home on the property and continued on until he made it to a barn.

Court documents state that Getz circled in front of the barn and then drove his car in Swoap’s direction, stopping when he was “bumper to bumper” with the cruiser. Getz then backed up and angled his car as though to drive around the cruiser but Swoap maneuvered in a way that prevented Getz from leaving the scene.

When Getz was eventually persuaded to exit his vehicle, he was agitated and repeatedly yelled for Swoap to get off his property. He tried to leave the scene several times despite the fact that Swoap repeatedly informed him that he was not free to leave.

Eventually, Swoap managed to place a physically resistant Getz into handcuffs and backup arrived in the form of Sgt. Timothy Spees.

Trisha Getz, Getz’s daughter, was also at the scene. She testified that her father complained multiple times that the handcuffs were hurting him and that Swoap offered to summon medical attention for him.

According to Spees and Swoap, shortly after Spees arrived, he asked Swoap if he was aware that Getz was bleeding from the handcuffs. Swoap said he was not aware and the handcuffs were removed.

According to a police log of radio dispatches, the entire ordeal took place in about five minutes. However, Trisha testified that she was outside and her father was handcuffed for approximately 20 minutes before Spees arrived and the cuffs were removed.

On July 10, 2013, Getz filed a complaint against Swoap and the sheriff of Wood County alleging false arrest, excessive force and failure to train and supervise. The district court granted summary judgment to the police on all of the claims but the excessive force claim was the only one to make it to an appeal.

Considering the evidence, the 6th Circuit court upheld that district court’s ruling that Swoap was entitled to qualified immunity because his actions were reasonable.

“It is undisputed that Getz was behaving belligerently before and after the handcuffs were applied, that Getz resisted Swoap’s attempts to place him under arrest, that Getz said that he intended to flee the scene and that Getz did, in fact, try to flee the scene,” Cleland wrote.

Swoap admitted that he did not check the handcuffs or double lock them to prevent them from tightening, but the court of appeals held that, in the face of a struggling arrestee, Swoap’s conduct was understandable and “not all conduct that causes an arrestee discomfort or pain violates the Fourth Amendment.”

“We hold that, given the arrestee’s resistance and general noncompliance, Swoap did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he applied handcuffs without checking for tightness and double locking the moment of the arrest,” Cleland wrote. “Qualified immunity applies to this claim.”

The appellate panel also held that Trisha’s testimony that her father was in handcuffs and in pain for 20 minutes was clearly disputed by record.

“Taking Trisha’s other testimony and the undisputed police log together, no reasonable jury could credit Trisha’s opinion that she was outside for 20 minutes,” Cleland wrote. “The police radio log is clear — and no party disagrees — that about four and a half minutes passed between Getz’s arrest and Spees’ arrival.”

Considering all of the evidence and Getz’s noncompliance, the court of appeals concluded that none of Swoap’s conduct violated the Fourth Amendment and that he was entitled to qualified immunity.

Judges Raymond Kethledge and Richard Griffin joined Cleland to form the majority.

The case is cited Getz v. Swoap, case No. 15-3514.

Date Published: September 5, 2016


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