Law School Case Brief
Sherrod v. Berry - 856 F.2d 802 (7th Cir. 1988)
When an officer believes that a suspect's actions places him, his partner, or others in the immediate vicinity in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, the officer can reasonably exercise the use of deadly force.
Defendant Willie Berry, a police officer employed by defendant City of Joliet, fatally shot the decedent, Ronald Sherrod, a robbery suspect after the decedent moved as though he might be reaching into his coat for a gun. The decedent's father, plaintiff Lucien Sherrod, individually and as administrator of the decedent's estate, filed a 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983 action in federal district court against Berry, the City and defendant Frederick Breen, the chief of police. The complaint alleged, inter alia, that Berry violated § 1983 when he shot and killed the decedent; Breen and the City violated § 1983 through their improper policy regarding the use of deadly force; and the City failed to adequately train the police officers concerning correct procedures for making felony stops of vehicles as well as the use of deadly force. During the trial, the district court admitted into evidence, over defense objection, the fact that the decedent had no weapon. The jury ultimately found for Sherrod and awarded $ 1,601,700 in damages. Defendants appealed.
Did the trial court abuse its discretion admitting into evidence the fact that the decedent had no weapon?
The appellate court reversed the district court's judgment. The appellate court held that the admission of the evidence of the decedent's lack of a weapon was improper, irrelevant, and prejudicial. The applicable test for the jury was the "objective reasonableness under the circumstances" of Berry's action based upon the information that he had when he made the crucial decision to use deadly force. By giving the jury information that Berry did not have at the time of the shooting, the district court clearly abused its discretion. The case was remanded to the district court for a new trial with instructions that the district court decide other evidentiary rulings or jury instruction issues in light of the court's prior discussions.
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