Countless federal court decisions teach that plaintiffs cannot evade summary judgment by speculation or by merely insisting that the other side’s witnesses must be liars. Rather, they must point to evidence in the record. The Seventh Circuit recently reiterated that this principle holds even in high-profile police shooting cases.
A police officer was responding to a call of someone breaking into cars at 3:30 am and met a man wielding a large hunting knife. The officer repeatedly called for the suspect to drop the knife; the suspect raised the knife and kept advancing. When he was a few steps away, he threw the knife, hitting the officer in the arm. At approximately the same time as the knife throw, the officer fatally shot the suspect. There were no other witnesses and no video.
The decedent’s family sued, insisting that the officer must be lying about how the encounter happened and that a jury should decide if the force was excessive. But the Seventh Circuit reiterated that “litigation is bound to the record,” and a party must have evidence in the record to support its account. The court agreed that it can be “troubling” that some fatal police shootings eliminate the prime source of evidence, but evidence is still required. If the physical evidence plausibly contradicts the officer’s account, questions of fact will bar summary judgment, but that was not the case here. Ultimately, “disbelief of the only witness is not proof that the opposite of the witness’s statement is true.” Rather, it means the record is silent, “on an empty record, the plaintiff loses” because he or she bears the burden of proof.
The court also rejected the family’s claim that the officer’s shots were excessive because after the suspect threw the knife, he no longer posed any threat. But throwing the knife did not mean that the officer was no longer in danger. The suspect, who was “evidently bent on harming the officer,” could have had another weapon or attacked with his “fists, feet, and elbows.” Under the applicable Fourth Amendment standard, “the use of force remains reasonable after a suspect employs a weapon, has not surrendered, and thus remains dangerous.” That was clearly the case here, and thus the district court’s grant of summary judgment was affirmed.