Topeka's city government and a federal judge don't agree whether a white Topeka police officer violated a Black man's Constitutional rights.
This week, the matter will go before a jury in federal court in Topeka.
The city concluded the force used by officer Chris Janes was reasonable in January 2018 when he arrested Topekan Timothy C. Harris, 38, who says he suffered injuries that included a broken jaw.
Andrew M. Stroth, managing director of the Chicago-based civil rights law firm Action Injury Law Group, eight months later filed a lawsuit on Harris' behalf, which goes to trial Tuesday.
U.S. District Senior Judge Sam Crow ruled in August 2019 that a reasonable jury could conclude Janes violated Harris' Fourth Amendment rights due to the amount of force he used on Harris as his hands were cuffed behind his back and he wasn't resisting.
Here is when the trial against a Topeka police officer begins
Trial proceedings begin at 9 a.m. Tuesday, and are to be preceded at 8:15 a.m. by a final pretrial conference.
The trial is expected to last two to three days, according to a pretrial order issued Jan. 14.
Harris is asking for $1 million in compensation and for payment of his expenses and attorney's fees, which in mid-January totaled $197,120.55, the order said.
It indicated Janes was seeking payment of his own expenses and attorney's fees he's paid to outside counsel, which at that time totaled $37,688.05.
Janes is represented by the Great Bend-based law firm of Watkins Calcara, Chartered.
Though Topeka's city government is no longer a defendant in the case, the city attorney's office is helping represent Janes, who continues to be employed by the city as a police officer.
The city is self-insured in matters involving such employees, said Gretchen Spiker, its communications director.
Harris' face appeared pepper-sprayed, bloodied
In the incident that triggered the suit, Topeka police said Harris and Janes got into an altercation near 2600 S.E. 10th as Janes sought to investigate an allegation that Harris had committed theft.
The Capital-Journal used an open records request to obtain a body camera video of the incident in September 2018.
In the video, Janes approaches a stopped car in which Harris sits in the driver's seat.
Janes, Harris and a woman in the car exchange words about another person's possessions and a parking issue regarding the car he's in, the video shows.
Eventually, Harris asks, "So what's going on sir?"
"You're being detained is what's going on," Janes replies.
The woman asks, "Detained for what?"
Harris takes off his jacket while sitting in the front seat, then gets out of the car.
Janes asks over his police radio for backup to respond using lights and siren.
"Put your hands behind your back," he tells Harris. "I didn't ask you to get out of the car."
Janes then cuffs Harris' hands behind his back.
"Thank you," Harris says. "Are you happy now?"
Janes starts to walk Harris toward his patrol car before Harris asks, "What are you doing?" and Janes responds, "I'm trying to take you to my car."
"No, you're not," Harris says. "I'm walking with you."
Janes then takes Harris to the ground.
Janes yells at Harris several times to stop trying to get up.
"I'm not trying to get up — you're laying on me," Harris says.
By this point, the woman has gotten out of the car and is telling Janes to get off Harris.
"I can't breathe," Harris says.
"Yes, you can," Janes responds.
About six minutes into the encounter, backup arrives and an ambulance is requested.
Harris' face appears to have been pepper-sprayed and bloodied.
"You beat him," the woman says.
"This is ridiculous," Harris says. "I wasn't resisting or nothing."
"You absolutely were," Janes tells him.
Lawsuit contends Topeka officer beat Timothy Harris, broke his jaw
Janes arrested Harris on an outstanding warrant charging him with violating conditions of probation, which had previously been imposed after he was convicted of possessing drug paraphernalia and interfering with a law enforcement officer.
Harris was also charged with crimes involving his actions linked to the altercation. He was found guilty of interfering with a law enforcement officer and parallel parking more than 12 inches from the curb, according to Topeka Municipal Court records.
Other charges filed against Harris were dismissed, including battery to a law enforcement officer and disobeying a lawful police order.
Former Topeka Police Chief Bill Cochran, who is now interim city manager, said the police department reviewed the incident and determined the amount of force used was reasonable for the situation involved.
The civil suit attorney Stroth filed on Harris' behalf contends he was beaten and his jaw broken. It alleges Harris' Fourth Amendment right regarding seizure and 14th Amendment right to due process were violated.
Chicago firm pursued previous use-of-force case against city of Topeka
Stroth's law firm in May 2018 had filed suit on behalf of members of Topekan Dominique White's family seeking more than $10 million after Topeka police officers Justin Mackey and Michael Cruse fatally shot White, 30, in August 2017 in East Topeka.
That suit’s first count contended Mackey and Cruse shot White without just cause. The second contended the city and its police department trained officers inadequately.
A federal judge issued an order in September 2020 removing Mackey and Cruse as defendants while concluding they had qualified immunity from prosecution.
Qualified immunity shields government officials performing discretionary functions from liability for civil damages if their conduct doesn’t violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.
A federal judge last November then dismissed White's family's suit with prejudice, meaning it can't be refiled and the city will pay no money to family members.
City of Topeka no longer a defendant in Timothy Harris' case
One count of the two-count lawsuit Stroth filed on Harris' behalf names as its defendant the city of Topeka, which it contended provided its police officers deficient training and had inadequate policies. That count was subsequently dismissed.
The suit's other count alleges Janes used excessive force. Janes sought to have that count dismissed, saying he was entitled to qualified immunity.
But U.S. District Judge Crow, who was 93 at the time and continues today to hold senior judge status at age 96, refused to grant Janes qualified immunity.
He wrote that Janes should have known that “It was unconstitutional to take down the arrestee face-first, to apply knee pressure to his back, to punch him in the face, and to pepper spray him when the arrestee is restrained by handcuffs, is cooperating by walking to the patrol car and is not resisting."
Janes appealed Crow’s ruling to the Denver-based 10th Circuit Appeals Court.
It denied the appeal in July 2020, saying it lacked jurisdiction to consider it.
Janes hasn't surrendered his qualified immunity defense as he continues to fight the lawsuit, according to the court order in the case issued Jan. 14.
Prosecution's witness list contains four names; defendant lists six
Four people are named on the list Stroth filed with the court this month identifying witnesses he intends to call.
They are Harris, Janes, Ariel Gatewood and the records custodian for Stormont Vail Health, whose name wasn't given.
The defendant's witness list includes the names of Janes and six other Topeka police officers expected to be called.
It also identifies Gatewood, two other Topeka police officers and four Shawnee County sheriff's deputies as people who may need to be called.
Attorneys representing Harris and Janes filed separate motions May 10 asking the court to ban the mentioning at trial of matters they considered irrelevant, including specific past situations involving Harris or Janes.
No record could be found late Friday of Crabtree's having ruled on those motions.
Tim Hrenchir can be reached at email@example.com or 785-213-5934.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Use-of-force suit trial against Topeka police officer begins Tuesday