False imprisonment judgment upheld against state police

2013-01-28T00:00:00Z 2013-01-28T13:22:03Z False imprisonment judgment upheld against state policeDan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
January 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | The Indiana Court of Appeals has upheld a $300,000 civil judgment against the Indiana State Police after a trooper was found to have falsely imprisoned two Northwest Indiana men following a traffic stop on the Indiana Toll Road in Porter County.

On June 9, 2004, Michael Mitchell, a plaster and cement mason from Gary, was driving his Dodge Durango with passenger Leonard Love, a correctional officer at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, according to court records.

The appeals court noted both men are African-American.

Trooper Nathan Abbott was patrolling the Toll Road and said he became "interested" in the vehicle due to its tinted windows and environmental license plate. Abbott drove past the vehicle, looked in the window, found the vehicle was not speeding but nevertheless pulled the vehicle over for allegedly failing to signal a lane change, according to court records.

The court noted Abbott told his dispatcher he was pulling the vehicle over for a "possible" narcotics violation.

Mitchell disputed that he had failed to signal a lane change, and Abbott said he'd only issue a warning. However, a check of outstanding warrants found Mitchell was wanted on a 1994 charge of altering a temporary license plate.

The trooper asked for and received permission to search the Durango. Abbott repeatedly asked where the guns and drugs were and said, "You don't know how good it's going to feel when I find these drugs," according to court records.

During the search, Mitchell was double-handcuffed and locked in the police car. Love was ordered to stand by the side of the road. Mitchell and Love both told the trooper they didn't have any drugs, the court said.

A second search by a canine unit found no drugs, and Mitchell complained the dog was scratching up his Durango. Abbott told Mitchell: "You got money. You can get it fixed. Buff it out." Abbott then searched the vehicle a third time and found no contraband, according to court records.

Mitchell was eventually taken to jail, though the warrant against him was recalled the next day and he was released by Gary Police. He was treated at Gary's Methodist Hospital for wrist and shoulder pain and swelling. Love drove the Durango home.

Following the incident, the two men filed a false imprisonment complaint against the state police arguing Abbott had no legal reason to stop them or repeatedly search the Durango. Under Indiana law, false imprisonment doesn't require actual incarceration, just a showing that a person's freedom of movement was restricted against his will.

Love claimed he was falsely imprisoned from the start of the traffic stop until he was permitted to drive away. Mitchell said he was falsely imprisoned until the warrant was discovered. 

Last March, a Lake County jury sided with Mitchell and Love and ruled the trooper committed false imprisonment based on the testimony it heard and the evidence in the case.

The jury awarded Mitchell $200,000 and Love $100,000.

In its appeal, the state police asked the verdict be overturned and argued Abbott was acting lawfully when he stopped Mitchell and Love.

The appeals court, in a 3-0 decision, said it found the jury had a sufficient basis to conclude there was no lane change and therefore no reason for Mitchell and Love to be pulled over.

The court rejected a police request to reweigh the evidence and said it found sufficient evidence to sustain the jury's verdict.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller, the lawyer for the state police, is reviewing the court's decision and considering whether to appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court, according to spokesman Bryan Corbin.

An attempt to reach Bessie Davis, the Gary attorney who represented Mitchell and Love, was unsuccessful.

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