(CN) – A jury properly entered an excessive-force ruling against two officers who shot a man trying to surrender at the end of a high-speed chase through rural Illinois, a magistrate judge ruled.
In May 2002, Dellace Holten fled when Officer Robert Smith allegedly tried to pull him over for driving 56 mph in a 35 mph zone. He was driving a 1998 Firebird, which the police later discovered was stolen. Holten claimed that he fled because Smith was in an unmarked vehicle and threatened to shoot him.
For the next few minutes, Smith chased Holten across 12 miles of rural Dekalb and Ogle Counties, topping speeds of 100 mph. Other police officers, including John Klink, joined the chased and attempted, unsuccessfully, to stop Holten using traffic spikes.
With his gas tank near empty, Holten eventually drove off the road to avoid a tractor. He drove onto a private property, parked the Firebird in a small garage and hid, crouched in the floorboard of a Buick LeSabre.
Holten says he tried to surrender at this point, but Smith and Klink opened fire, so he put the LeSabre in reverse and tried to drive out of the garage. The officers claim that they opened fire in self-defense because Holden was using the reversing car as a weapon against them.
Holden survived the encounter with three bullet wounds to his hand, chest and butt.
In 2011, after lengthy delays, a jury ruled that the officers used excessive force against Holden and awarded $260,000 in damages.
The officers asked the Rockford, Ill., court to grant them judgment as a matter of law or order a new retrial. They claimed the case would have gone in their favor if they were allowed to produce evidence of Holten’s prior drug use and alleged retail thefts that occurred in the hours before the car chase.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Mahoney rejected the motion, finding there to be “more than a ‘mere scintilla’ of evidence supporting the jury verdict.”
“As to the prior drug use, the court found the prejudicial effect to outweigh any probative value based on a complete lack of evidence that plaintiff’s earlier use of drugs had any affect on his ability to perceive or remember events,” Holten wrote. “Regarding the alleged retail thefts, the court found the information irrelevant, unproven, and inadmissible.”
“As the court found previously, the officers had no knowledge of the alleged thefts or drug use, and there is no indication that plaintiff was under the influence at the time of the incidents that give rise to this case,” he added. “To the extent Defendants believe they were prejudiced, the court notes that they were allowed to use and introduce evidence that plaintiff believed there had been a crack pipe in the car at the time he fled police. Defendants had at their disposal evidence that could be used to question plaintiff’s motives for fleeing and attack credibility.”
“Regarding the severity of the crime at issue, the jury learned that the only violation the pursuing officers were aware of was plaintiff’s speeding violation,” the 13-page decision states. “While plaintiff did actively resist arrest by fleeing, the jury learned that attempts were made to call off the high speed chase. The jury was also charged with making credibility determinations about conflicting testimony as to how and when the defendants shot at plaintiff.”