Can an excessive force case under §1983 be tried against John Doe, and can a resulting judgment be entered against John Doe?
Respondent, Rosa Lee Butcher, alleges that officers from Petitioner, City of Clarksburg Police Department (CCPD), used excessive force during the booking process.
On September 29, 2013, officers responded to two 911 calls involving Respondent and her neighbors. After responding the second time, Respondent was arrested and charged with multiple offenses including assault, disorderly conduct, and obstructing an officer.
Respondent was transported to headquarters for processing. Exactly what transpired during the booking process remains unclear. Respondent alleges that she refused to be fingerprinted, after which she was tased, causing her to pass out and suffer convulsions. Respondent was charged with failure to provide fingerprints. However, none of the officers involved claimed to have witnessed Respondent’s refusal to provide fingerprints. Furthermore, CCPD could never identify which officer was, in fact, responsible for Respondent’s booking. CCPD denies that any tasing occurred.
Respondent sued CCPD and the arresting officer, Scott Vinson. Respondent also sued John Doe, who was alleged to be the officer responsible for the tasing. The case was tried in June, 2017. CCPD was dismissed and the claims against Vinson and John Doe were submitted to the jury. The jury found that Respondent was the victim of excessive force by John Doe and awarded $5,000 in damages. The trial court entered judgment and also made an award of attorney fees. This appeal is brought by Vinson and CCPD.
Petitioner (Vinson and CCPD):
Petitioners argue that a judgment against a “John Doe” cannot legally be entered in a §1983 case. Furthermore, CCPD cannot be liable under a theory of respondeat superior for the acts of any of its officers, including any unknown John Doe officers. Consequently, the trial court erred by entering a judgment through which CCPD and/or its insurer would be liable to pay the judgment amount.
Respondent argues that a judgment against John Doe was appropriate under the facts of this particular case. Clearly, Respondent could not have joined the unknown officer in the original complaint. Respondent later offered to add two other officers by name to the verdict form. However, CCPD objected. Furthermore, the trial court correctly found that CCPD’s failure to preserve video evidence of the booking contributed to Respondent’s inability to identify the officer involved.
This is an interesting issue. The case appears on the Rule 20 docket so we can anticipate new syllabus law. The case’s impact is difficult to predict. It is possible that what the Supreme Court says in deciding this specific issue may have ripple effects that will impact other aspects of John Doe practice.