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Cop Can’t Nix Suit Over New Year’s Gunplay

CHICAGO (CN) - A man who fired his gun into the air on New Year's Eve from his back porch can sue the officer who volleyed back with three bullets, the 7th Circuit ruled.

At midnight on Jan. 1, 2008, James Wells ushered in the new year by shooting his gun into the air from his back porch. Springfield police officer Jeffrey Coker arrived at the scene to investigate the gunfire, and wound up shooting Wells three times.

Though the men dispute whether Wells had pointed his loaded gun at the officer, Wells ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of reckless conduct, which marked a step down from the felony charge of reckless discharge of a firearm that he faced initially.

The reckless conduct charge stated that Wells had "discharged a firearm multiple times ... and then pointed the firearm at [Coker]."

Wells later sued Coker and Springfield for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Coker argued that his use of force was reasonable because Wells pointed the gun at him. Finding that the guilty plea barred Wells from arguing that he had not pointed the gun at Coker, U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough granted the defendants summary judgment.

A three-judge appellate panel reversed Tuesday.

Wells "reasons that, in pleading guilty to reckless conduct, he did not admit that he had pointed a gun at Coker," according to the ruling. "That allegation, he contends, was superfluous to the charge that by discharging his gun overhead he committed reckless conduct. As a result, he concludes, he may and does dispute whether he pointed a loaded gun at Coker, so summary judgment was inappropriate."

Neither judicial estoppel nor preclusion prevents Wells from making the argument, the court found.

"The doctrine of judicial estoppel prevents a party from prevailing on an argument in an earlier matter and then relying on a contradictory argument to prevail in a subsequent matter," Judge John Tinder wrote for a three-member panel.

Wells did not "prevail" in his criminal case for the purposes of judicial estoppel, however, because he did not successfully persuade a court to accept his earlier position.

In addition, because the charge that Wells pointed his gun at Coker was not necessary to the court's judgment that Wells had engaged in reckless conduct, the doctrine of issue preclusion does not apply under Illinois law.

Though "it may seem peculiar that, where each of two alternative factual bases would be sufficient to support a guilty plea but neither is necessary, this indeterminacy means that neither of the two bases can bind a party in subsequent litigation, even where the party agrees that at least one of these two bases was necessary," Tinder wrote, noting that Illinois courts require a specific factual finding to be "absolutely necessary" before applying issue preclusion.

Illinois case law furthermore holds that the underlying facts of a guilty plea do not constitute conclusive evidence of particular conduct in subsequent proceedings.

"Wells should be given the opportunity to contest or otherwise explain the facts that underlie his guilty plea," Tinder concluded.

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