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Hawkins v. Walsh

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Greenville Division

March 23, 2018




         This civil rights action is before the Court on the multiple motions in limine filed by the parties.

         I. Procedural History

         On May 18, 2016, Eric Hawkins filed a complaint against Nicholas Walsh and the City of Clarksdale, Mississippi, seeking to recover for an alleged use of excessive force against him by Walsh, a police officer with the City of Clarksdale. Doc. #1. Specifically, Hawkins alleges that he was a passenger in a car stopped by Walsh and that he exited the car during the traffic stop, began to run, and was shot by Walsh. Walsh, for his part, claims that he shot Hawkins after Hawkins exited the car with a rifle.

         No party filed a dispositive motion. However, on February 23, 2018, Hawkins filed six motions in limine. Doc. #71; Doc. #73; Doc. #75; Doc. #77; Doc. #79; Doc. #81. The same day, Walsh and the City filed a joint motion in limine. Doc. #68. Hawkins filed a seventh motion in limine on March 2, 2018. Doc. #84.

         II Motion in Limine Standard

         “The purpose of a motion in limine is to allow the trial court to rule in advance of trial on the admissibility and relevance of certain forecasted evidence. Evidence should not be excluded in limine unless it is clearly inadmissible on all potential grounds.” Harkness v. Bauhaus U.S.A., Inc., No. 3:13-cv-129, 2015 WL 631512, at *1 (N.D. Miss. Feb. 13, 2015) (quotation marks and citations omitted).

         III Defendants' Motion in Limine and Hawkins' Seventh Motion in Limine

         In their motion in limine, the defendants seek to exclude evidence related to Hawkins' acquittal of the crime of aggravated assault during the incident underlying Hawkins' suit. Doc. #68. Relatedly, Hawkins' seventh motion in limine seeks to exclude evidence related to criminal charges brought against him stemming from the incident.[1] Doc. #84.

         After the filing of these motions, the defendants filed a document representing that the parties:

have reached an agreement … regarding their First Motion in Limine and Plaintiff's Seventh Motion in Limine. The parties will stipulate not to reference any criminal charges and/or the results of the charges, including the results of plaintiff's criminal trial. The parties have agreed to redact any references to criminal investigation, criminal charges, or criminal trial in the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation Report. This stipulation will include the agreement to redact the second half of Peter Clinton's recommendation that the plaintiff or the other vehicle occupants should be charged with crimes arising out of the incident.

Doc. #106.

         Based on this representation, both motions in limine will be denied as moot.

         IV Hawkins' First Motion in Limine

         In his first motion in limine (“First Motion”), Hawkins moves to exclude as irrelevant and unduly prejudicial any evidence related to his criminal record, which includes charges of disorderly conduct, false identification, failure to pay fines, and a variety of traffic offenses. Doc. #71; Doc. #72.

         As a general rule, “[e]vidence of a crime, wrong, or other act is not admissible to prove a person's character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.” Fed.R.Evid. 404(b). However, such “evidence may be admissible for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.” Id. In their response, the defendants argue that Hawkins' criminal history is admissible to show: (1) the falsity of Hawkins' claim that he ran because he was scared; (2) the falsity of Hawkins' statements regarding the severity of his damages; and (3) as impeachment evidence under Federal Rule of Evidence 609.

         A. Reason for Running

         The defendants argue:

Plaintiff claimed to Colonel Clinton of the MBI that he did not know why he ran from Officer Walsh with the weapon, and in his deposition, he explained that he ran because he was “scared” but that he would not have run in hindsight. In short, Plaintiff claims that his running was a mistake. However, Plaintiff's criminal convictions prove the contrary. Prior to this incident, Plaintiff also ran from a law enforcement officer who attempted to pull him over, after Plaintiff had presented this same officer with false information by claiming to be his brother to avoid arrest for outstanding warrants. This incident resulted in Plaintiff being tased by the officer. This incident shows, contrary to Plaintiff's testimony, that his running from the law enforcement officer was not inadvertent or a mistake.

Doc. #96 at 2 (emphasis and internal citations omitted).

         “To state a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim, [a] plaintiff[] must show that [he was] seized and that [he] suffered (1) an injury that (2) resulted directly and only from the use of force that was excessive to the need and that (3) the force was objectively unreasonable.” Davila v. United States, 713 F.3d 248, 259 (5th Cir. 2013) (original alterations and quotation marks omitted). This inquiry is “fact-specific” and must “be made from the perspective of an objectively reasonable officer at the scene, rather than in hindsight.” Id. Put differently, “the question is whether the officers' actions are ‘objectively reasonable' in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them ….” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989).

         Because the excessive force inquiry is an objective one, a plaintiff's subjective reason for fleeing from an officer is irrelevant. See Molina v. City of Visalia, No. 1:13-cv-1991, 2016 WL 8730723, at *4 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 16, 2016) (“[T]he subjective state-of-mind and any motivation for fleeing on the part of Maduena, Molina, and the other passengers of the vehicle are not at issue in this action and are not relevant to a determination of the defendants' liability because officers Collins, Roberts, and Alfano were unaware of them.”). Accordingly, Hawkins' reason for running, which was indisputably unknown to Walsh, is irrelevant to the excessive force inquiry and properly excluded. See Fed. R. Evid. 402 (“Irrelevant evidence is not admissible.”).

         B. Severity of Damages

         The defendants argue:

While Plaintiff was purportedly recovering from his injuries in Robinsonville, Mississippi at his mother's house, Plaintiff was arrested on November 3, 2013 and was subsequently convicted for presenting false information. This conviction shows that Plaintiff was riding around in Clarksdale and could not have been recovering from his injuries…. The Court should allow Municipal Defendants to pre[s]ent this evidence of Plaintiff's whereabouts and health which go directly to his damages.

Doc. #96 at 2.

         Federal Rule of Evidence 403 provides that “[t]he court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence.” “[O]nly unfair prejudice, substantially outweighing probative value … permits exclusion of relevant matter under Rule 403.” United States v. Barnes, 803 F.3d 209, 221 (5th Cir. 2015) (emphasis omitted). Of relevance here, “[p]robative ...

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