Two Minneapolis police officers can't be held liable in a lawsuit for pepper-spraying and arresting an NFL player while working off-duty outside a club, according to a federal appeals court decision published Friday.
However, one of the officers — the other died in 2018 — could still be on the hook for subduing former Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson with a stun gun that night in 2014, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found.
Johnson sued the officers, Patrick McCarver and John LaLuzerne, in 2016, alleging they violated his civil rights during an altercation outside Seven nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. A judge in that case denied the officers' claims that they should be shielded by "qualified immunity," a legal doctrine that protects government workers who are acting in reasonable parameters of their jobs. The new ruling reverses that decision on all but one count.
LaLuzerne died Oct. 7, 2018, at age 52.
"We're pleased the court ruled that the false arrest, First Amendment retaliation, due process and the excessive force claims related to the incidents inside the club be dismissed," said Deputy Minneapolis City Attorney Erik Nilsson. "We are preparing to defend the remainder of the lawsuit."
David Coyle, one of Johnson's attorneys, said they are still weighing whether to challenge the decision, and they plan to move forward with the lawsuit on the Taser claim regardless.
"We still believe obviously that Tom did nothing wrong here," he said. "And just like the criminal jury acquitted him, we believe a civil jury will believe him as well."
On Oct. 5, 2014, around 2:15 a.m. — just after closing time — Johnson was standing in the lobby of Seven, waiting for a valet driver to bring around his car.
A doorman for the club ordered Johnson to leave because his boots violated Seven's dress code, according to the lawsuit. When Johnson refused, the doorman told the two officers, who were in uniform and working security for Seven.
The officers pushed Johnson toward the door, pepper-sprayed him and shoved him outside, according to court records.
Fifteen minutes later, the officers found Johnson sitting on a planter outside Seven and asked for his identification. Johnson began filming them with his cellphone.
"You feel good about it?" Johnson asked them. Johnson refused to turn over his ID, saying he'd done nothing wrong, and one of the officers slapped the cellphone out of his hand.
The officers pulled out their Tasers, and McCarver stunned the 6-foot-3, 285-pound Johnson twice, sending him to the ground. The officers handcuffed Johnson and took him to jail.
A jury found Johnson not guilty on charges of trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process.
In a December 2017 hearing, City Attorney Sara Lathrop argued the officers had probable cause to believe Johnson committed a crime that night, so under the law they should be granted qualified immunity.
The judge, Paul Magnuson, disagreed, concluding there were too many facts in dispute to prove probable cause. "A reasonable jury could find that the officers' use of force in this situation was unreasonable and violated Johnson's constitutional rights," wrote Magnuson.
The appeals court reversed that decision this week. Judge Steven Colloton, writing for the majority, said that even if Johnson had the right to be in the bar's lobby, it's reasonable to assume the bouncer and officers revoked that when asking him to leave.
But the Taser portion of the incident is less clear, wrote Colloton. The officers claimed they stunned Johnson because he attempted to lunge at them after they knocked his phone down. Johnson denied this claim, and the video was "inconclusive," according to Colloton. "We accept Johnson's version that he was seated peacefully on the planter when McCarver tased him," the judge wrote.
There is no trial date set.