Judge weighs jury trial in civil suit stemming from police shooting

Monitor staff
Thursday, October 12, 2017

A federal court judge is weighing whether the case against a Henniker police officer who shot and injured a man in 2014 should go before a jury.

Henniker police Officer Stephen Dennis maintains he is 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.

Family members of the victim, Aaron Cadman, disagree, arguing that Dennis used excessive force when he fired his duty weapon. Another officer faced with identical circumstances would have responded differently and weighed non lethal options, attorney George Campbell said Wednesday in U.S. District Court.

An hour long hearing was held Wednesday morning in Concord on Dennis’s motion for summary judgment, which asks a judge to rule on the merits of the civil lawsuit in which basic facts are undisputed. Attorneys debated the motion before U.S. District Court Judge Andrea Johnstone, who took the matter under advisement after asking several questions of both sides.

Johnstone focused many of those questions on the issue of qualified immunity, which shields public officials from civil liability as long as they don’t violate an individual’s constitutional rights. She did so with the goal of gauging whether Dennis’s decisions and actions immediately preceding the gunfire may preclude him from immunity.

Central to the lawsuit is whether Dennis acted in “good faith” or with “excessive force” when he chose to fire his duty weapon at Cadman on a state highway the day after Thanksgiving in 2014. 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 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.

A review by the Attorney General’s Office ruled the shooting justified.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Campbell said the attorney general’s “blessing” does not make the civil case moot. He noted it’s commonplace in New Hampshire for officer-involved shootings to be deemed justified.

Neither side disputes Cadman was rummaging through his truck after the crash and refusing Dennis’s commands. However, disagreements persist about whether Cadman’s actions were grounds for Dennis to shoot.

Campbell says the circumstances would have changed if Cadman had started to turn toward Dennis while armed, or if Cadman had reached toward his waist, signaling efforts to retrieve a gun. Alternatively, Dennis’s attorney, Brian J.S. Cullen, said officers dealing with a man who they’ve been told is armed and dangerous can’t wait to see a gun before they respond.

“We’re really putting it in an untenable situation when you have to see the gun,” Cullen said, adding officers can’t afford to hesitate when their lives are on the line.

Should the civil lawsuit move forward, a jury trial is scheduled for late February.

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