7th Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Suit Against Chicago Fire Captain

The US Circuit Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against a Chicago fire captain and a police sergeant by a man who was arrested after responders forced entry into his apartment. Earl Conner filed suit against Fire Captain James Mason and Sergeant Christopher Vacek accusing them of violating his Fourth Amendment rights, making an unlawful arrest, and malicious prosecution.

Conner was arrested in 2016 following an altercation with Cameshia Martin, the mother of his one-year-old daughter. Martin, who was watching the baby at Conner’s apartment, fled the apartment and called 911. As explained in the decision:

  • Emergency services dispatched police, fire, and medical units in response to Martin’s call. Chicago Fire Department Captain James Mason was among the first on scene and remained briefly to administer medical treatment to Martin until an ambulance came.
  • Later, when Mason was no longer present, Sergeant Christopher Vacek of the Chicago Police Department arrived and began investigating the domestic-battery report.
  • Other officers told Vacek about Martin’s report that Conner pushed their one-year old daughter aside, then pulled Martin’s hair and beat her with a golf club.
  • Vacek knocked on Conner’s front door to try to talk to him. Conner did not respond.
  • Vacek’s bodycam captured Martin asking him to break down the apartment door because she believed that her daughter was in danger.
  • Vacek told her he would arrest Conner on entry, called for backup, and asked some of the firefighters present to help break down the door.
  • Before forcing entry into Conner’s apartment, Vacek knocked one last time and asked Conner to open the door.
  • Conner admits that he heard the knock and Vacek’s request this time, but he did not respond. Officers then broke down the door and entered the apartment with their guns drawn.
  • They found Conner in the bedroom with his daughter and arrested him.
  • He was later charged with several counts of domestic abuse and child endangerment.
  • Prosecutors eventually dismissed the child endangerment count, but a jury found Conner guilty of battering Martin.
  • After his conviction, Conner sued Vacek and Mason under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for entering his apartment and arresting him without a warrant, and for maliciously prosecuting him in violation of state law.
  • We begin with Conner’s claims against Mason.
  • To recover damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must establish that a defendant was personally responsible for any alleged deprivations of constitutional rights.
  • Although certain members of the Chicago Fire Department were involved in the forced entry and present during the arrest, Mason left the scene before they entered the apartment.
  • Because he was not present during-much less personally involved in-the search, seizure of evidence, or arrest, Mason cannot be liable for any alleged constitutional violation.
  • As for the claims against Vacek, Conner maintains that Vacek entered his apartment unlawfully because he did not have a warrant or permission to enter. Though Conner is correct that a warrantless search is presumptively unreasonable, a search conducted with the consent of a person with apparent authority over a property is a well-recognized exception.
  • Here, Martin not only gave Vacek permission to enter but also asked him to break down the front door because, she said, her daughter was in danger.
  • Based on what he was told by other officers and what he learned from following up with Martin, Vacek reasonably believed that Martin had authority to allow him to enter the premises.
  • Conner also contends that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on his claims for unlawful arrest and imprisonment.
  • He insists that, because the child-endangerment report was false and that charge was ultimately dismissed, Vacek did not have probable cause to arrest him.
  • But probable cause to believe that a person has committed any crime defeats a claim of false arrest, so long as the officer’s belief is reasonable based on what was known to him at the time.
  • Here, Vacek knew that Martin reported that Conner pushed their child and battered Martin with a golf club.
  • And, as he observed her being treated for injuries, the sergeant had no reason to doubt the report’s credibility.
  • Because Martin was a victim and an eyewitness, her reports alone gave Vacek probable cause to arrest Conner.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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