Judge drops claims against Haverhill Police in shooting death

  • Hagen Esty-Lennon

  • This still image from a Haverhill police officer’s body camera shows the encounter with Hagen Esty-Lennon. The town’s attorneys are calling for the videos to be released.

Valley News 
Published: 6/26/2018 3:48:23 PM

A U.S. District Court judge has thrown out all federal claims in a lawsuit brought by the mother of a 41-year-old New Hampshire man who was shot and killed by Haverhill police in Bath, N.H., in July 2015.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrea Johnstone last week granted the town of Haverhill and officers Ryan Jarvis and Gregory Collins’ motions for summary judgment on three federal counts in the lawsuit filed by Donna Esty on behalf of the estate of her son, Hagen Esty-Lennon, effectively dismissing them.

In doing so, Johnstone remanded the six other counts in Esty’s lawsuit to state court. Those counts, including wrongful death, infliction of emotional distress, negligent supervision and training, and battery, will proceed in Grafton Superior Court.

The lawyers for the town and officers say they have cleared a major hurdle with the dismissal of the federal claims: violation of civil rights, municipal policy and unreasonable seizure, or excessive force.

“The two officers are thankful that the judge believed as they believed — that they were justified in doing what they had to do because of the circumstances that were presented to them,” said attorney Charles Bauer, who represents the town and Jarvis.

Added Collins’ attorney, Brian Cullen: “I was pleased but not surprised by the court’s decision. From any perspective, this is a tragic situation and not one that any officer wants to face. ... I think they took the best measures they could in the hopes that it wouldn’t end this way. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much choice.”

Esty’s lawyer, Peter McGrath, said he feels the court got it wrong.

“We respectfully disagree,” said McGrath, a former prosecutor. “If law enforcement shot every citizen in a position like this, we would have a lot more innocent people being killed. And our experts have told us they have disarmed 20 or 30 people like this over their career, and (the officers) should have worked to disarm the guy, not just (resort) to firing their weapons.”

Esty filed the lawsuit in February 2017, originally claiming the police department and three of its officers mishandled the encounter with her son on Route 302. The parties to the lawsuit later were amended, and the police department and the other officer who was on scene — Wallace Trott — were dropped from the suit.

Jarvis and Collins fired a total of 10 shots at Esty-Lennon, of Canterbury, N.H., after he ignored their commands and eventually charged toward them with a knife. Just prior to the incident,

Esty-Lennon, an Army veteran, had crashed his vehicle on a nearby iron bridge and had suffered what appeared to be a “self-inflicted” knife wound to his chest, according to an Attorney General’s Office’s report that found the officers were legally justified in using deadly force against Esty-Lennon.

Toxicology reports showed Esty-Lennon had higher-than-therapeutic doses of amphetamine in his blood as well as “a quantity” of Klonopin, an anti-convulsive and anti-anxiety medication, the report stated.

The Attorney General’s Office drew the conclusion that Esty-Lennon may have been suffering from mental health issues at the time, and may have been trying to harm himself.

The shooting was captured by the officers’ body cameras, as well as a police cruiser camera.

Perhaps most noteworthy in her decision to grant summary judgment, Judge Johnstone dismissed the count of unreasonable seizure against the two officers, which alleged Jarvis and Collins used excessive force in violation of Esty Lennon’s Fourth Amendment rights.

“A jury could find that a reasonable officer could have used deadly force against Esty-Lennon under the circumstances presented in this case,” Johnstone wrote.

She added: “Esty’s view of ‘reasonableness’ is far too narrow, at least for the purpose of an excessive-force claim.”

Johnstone noted that courts must keep in mind that officers have to make “split-second judgments” in rapidly unfolding situations.

In addition, she ruled that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects government officials from being held liable for making reasonable mistakes in the course of performing their duties.

McGrath, Esty’s attorney, said he feels the judge made factual conclusions while reviewing whether the claims were fit for summary judgment, something she can’t do.

“That should be left up to a jury,” said McGrath, who is considering an appeal.

The date of Esty’s court hearing in Grafton Superior Court hasn’t yet been set.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.

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