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Judge dismisses civil case against Henniker officer who shot suspect



Monitor staff
Sunday, February 04, 2018

A Henniker police officer who shot and injured a man in 2014 has won a civil lawsuit filed against him in federal court nearly two years ago.

U.S. District Court Judge Andrea Johnstone dismissed this week all claims bought against Officer Stephen Dennis by the family of Aaron Cadman. Bruce Cadman, on his son’s behalf, sought $5 million in damages, claiming Aaron suffered physical and emotional injuries as a result of the officer’s actions on a state highway in Henniker the day before Thanksgiving.

Attorney George “Skip” Campbell told the Monitor that Bruce Cadman was still considering whether to appeal the local ruling to the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

“Mr. Cadman has been through a lot. While he believes strongly in this case, I don’t know how much more he can live with it,” Campbell said.

Johnstone’s decision landed more than six months after Dennis filed a motion for summary judgment asking her to rule on the merits of the lawsuit. In his motion, Dennis argued he was immune from civil litigation because he acted within the scope of his official duties as a police officer and responded as any reasonable officer would have under the circumstances.

Qualified immunity shields public officials from civil liability as long as they don’t violate an individual’s constitutional rights. Johnstone ruled that Dennis is entitled to that immunity because the plaintiffs failed to prove that Dennis used excessive force in violation of Aaron Cadman’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The lawsuit also included claims of assault, battery and negligent use of force, all rooted in state law. Johnstone could have referred those claims to a New Hampshire court where the case would have started anew; however, she said, in the “interests of fairness, judicial economy, convenience, and comity” it made sense for the federal court to retain jurisdiction over all claims.

While there was no question Dennis had acted within the scope of his official duties as a police officer that November day, she said, both sides disagreed about his level of culpability, including whether he had been “reckless or wanton” in his decision making.

Another officer faced with identical circumstances would have responded differently and weighed nonlethal options, Cadman’s family maintained.

The incident unfolded during a heavy snowstorm after Cadman stole a truck and led police on a chase. Cadman, who died in 2016 of a drug overdose, was unarmed; the closest thing he had to a weapon was a butter knife in his pocket.

Dennis spotted the stolen truck, a late model GMC Sierra, traveling west on Route 202/9 near the Route 114 overpass when he began to give chase. The truck then collided with another truck, spun out of control and slammed into a car, injuring two people in the process.

According to the attorney general’s report, Dennis quickly reached the scene and exited his cruiser, gun drawn. He took cover near a truck about 20 feet away and shouted at Cadman to show him his hands. When Cadman repeatedly refused, the officer took aim at Cadman’s shoulder and pulled the trigger once.

Dennis argued he is not liable for Cadman’s injuries because he acted “within the scope of his office and in good faith,” as the statute states.

Johnstone agreed with the officer.

“Indeed, it is undisputed in the record that Dennis decided to shoot Cadman precisely because he believed Cadman posed a danger to life or safety of others,” she wrote in her 20-page order. “Thus, no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that Dennis’s actions were subjectively unreasonable under the circumstances.”

Campbell said he has a hard time believing an experienced officer in Dennis’s position would have made the same decision to shoot.

“I remain troubled by the fact that officers are given immunity in a situation where, like this one, Mr. Cadman made no threatening moves at the scene,” he said.

The town’s attorney, Brian Cullen, said Dennis always maintained a level of confidence about his decisions. Despite that, Cullen noted, the court process is not easy for any officer because those analyzing and scrutinizing his or her decisions have the advantage of hindsight.

“We are, of course, pleased with this outcome, but especially pleased that the court recognized the difficult circumstances Officer Dennis faced and his exercise of good faith in responding to those circumstances,” Cullen said.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)