Sherrod v. Berry

856 F.2d 802 (7th Cir. 1988).

One-Sentence Takeaway: Evidence that an individual shot dead by a police officer was found to be unarmed after he was shot and killed was irrelevant and thus inadmissible in determining objective reasonableness of the officer’s conduct under the circumstances and to impeach the officer’s testimony that he saw the decedent reach quickly for his pocket before officer shot and killed him, but did not indicate that decedent was armed.

Summary:  Police officer on patrol heard radio dispatch report a robbery and describe the suspects.  The officer observed two individuals sitting in a Cadillac and they matched the description of the suspects.  The officer ordered them to exit the vehicle with their hands in the air.  Decedent quickly moved his hand towards his jacket pocket and was shot dead.  Decedent’s father brought a civils rights lawsuit against the officer and the police department.

At trial, evidence was received over defendants’ objections that a search of the Decedent after he was shot failed to disclose that he was armed with a weapon.  The trial court admitted that into evidence reasoning that, “had plaintiff been prevented from introducing this evidence, the record would have been such that the jury would have been left to speculate on whether [the officer] was justified in thinking the claimed movement by [Decedent] posed a danger to the police officer.”

The Court of Appeals reversed and held that the trial court erred by admitting into evidence that the Decedent was not armed.

The Court reasoned that the evidence was irrelevant in determining objective reasonableness of officer’s conduct under circumstances.  In determining objective reasonableness under circumstances, “under the circumstances” refers only to circumstances known and information available to officer at time of action.  In order for a jury to measure objective reasonableness of the officer’s action, it must stand in his shoes and judge reasonableness of actions based upon information possessed and judgment officer exercised in responding to that situation.  The evidence was irrelevant to the foregoing analysis because it was only as a result of the post-shooting search of the Decedent was it determined that he was unarmed.

Moreover, the evidence was also irrelevant and inadmissible to impeach the officer’s testimony.  The officer testified that he saw Decedent reach quickly for his pocket before officer shot him, but did not indicate that the Decedent had a weapon.

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