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Would You Be Mad if Cops Wrecked Your Car and Told You to Chill?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 30, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Cindy Abbott sued Sangamon County and local law enforcement officers for a slew of civil rights violations after she was tased. The County and the cops claimed qualified immunity -- as both are wont to do -- and the district court dismissed the claims.

This week, the Seventh Circuit reinstated Cindy's excessive force claims, reasoning that a jury should decide whether a cop was justified in tasering Cindy repeatedly after hitting her car.

Of course, the case involves so much more than just a fender bender. Let's jump right into what made this plaintiff hopping mad.

In 2007, Sangamon County animal control officers responded to a complaint that Cindy's dog, a Chow mix named Biscuit, had been running loose. Upon arriving at the Abbott home, officers spent an hour-and-a-half trying to corral Biscuit. Cindy's 20-year-old son, Travis, interfered with those efforts by running to different parts of the house and calling Biscuit.

Travis, who seems to have a problem with authority, also flipped off the officers and yelled a variety of 20-year-old boy threats. And so the cops were called.

With the fuzz heading to his home, Travis did what any reasonable man-child would do: He called his mom.

Travis was arrested for obstruction and assault after Cindy arrived.

Deputy Troy Sweeney was attempting to haul Travis away in the squad car when he rolled into Cindy's Jeep. Cindy proceeded to flip out over the collision. Sergeant James Lawley attempted to calm her by telling her that Sweeney had merely bumped her vehicle -- a courtesy tap, really -- and that insurance would cover the damage. That didn't stop Cindy from approaching Sweeney's squad car, still screaming.

Cindy and Sweeney disagree as to exactly how much screaming and warning occurred next, but both say that Sweeney tased Cindy twice. Cindy told the appellate court that the second hit with the Taser was excessive force.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Cindy's excessive force claim, reasoning that a jury could find that the second tase was not reasonable.

The court noted, "Cindy was shot in dart mode both times, which caused her to lose control of her skeletal muscles, a very significant intrusion on her Fourth Amendment interests." Furthermore, none of the three Graham factors -- severity of the crime, whether the arrestee posed an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, and whether he or she actively resisted arrest or attempted to evade arrest -- provided a justification for the second tasing. At most, Cindy exhibited passive noncompliance to turn over onto her stomach after the first tasering.

If there's a silver lining on this jolt of justice, it's that Cindy was tased in Illinois, and the Seventh Circuit got to decide her appeal. While many circuits are heavy-handed with their qualified immunity rulings, the Seventh Circuit is pretty open to holding cops accountable in civil rights suits.

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