Judge dismisses suit in officer-involved shooting case

Josh Briggs
Managing Editor

A U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas Western Division has dismissed a civil lawsuit against the city of Benton, former Benton Police Chief Kirk Lane and current Benton police Sgt. Kyle Ellison.
According to court documents filed Friday, the case was dismissed following the defendants’ motion for judgement.

“We are thankful that the federal judge evaluated the case and while it was difficult, considering the facts, we believe he reached the correct result,” said Brent Houston, attorney for the city of Benton.
The lawsuit, stemming from the 2016 officer-involved shooting death of 17-year-old Harmony Grove High School student Keagan Schweikle, was filed in July 2017.

Damages reported in the complaint included:
•Loss of life of Schweikle.
•Funeral expenses.
•Conscious pain, suffering and mental anguish of Schweikle prior to his death.
•Medical expenses attributed to the fatal injury.
•Mental anguish and grief of the teen’s mother, Piper Partridge, his father, Dominic Schweikle, and two siblings.

“The acts of the defendants were intentional or in reckless disregard of the rights of Keagan Schweikle from which malice may be inferred,” the suit stated.
Schweikle was shot and killed by Ellison on Oct. 17, 2016, after officers responded to the 1200 block of River Oaks Drive in Benton in regard to a “family disturbance” involving a juvenile with a gun, according to BNPD.
Officers also stated at the time of the incident that Schweikle fled the scene into a nearby wooded area and that they were concerned for his welfare, prompting a search.

Schweikle was located a short time later and, according to police, pointed a handgun at an officer before being fatally wounded.
The family was seeking $75,000 “to punish (the defendants) for their acts and to deter other deputies and officials from similar conduct.”

According to facts filed in this suit, Partridge called 911 seeking help the morning of the teen’s death.
She informed dispatch that her son had gone into the woods close to their home with a gun after threatening to shoot himself.
Partridge also told dispatchers that her son was not going to hurt anyone but himself, adding that he was depressed and upset after being suspended from school earlier that day and that he was possibly under the influence of prescription cough medication and marijuana.

The lawsuit also alleged that Schweikle was complying with officers’ demands and was lowering the gun from his head when he was fatally wounded by Ellison.
“Even if Keagan was shot when attempting to comply with Ellison’s command to drop the gun, the use of deadly force was still reasonable,” Judge Brian Miller stated in his dismissal. “It would have been nearly impossible for Ellison to tell whether Keagan was moving the gun away from his head to comply with Ellison’s order or if he was repositioning the gun to aim it at the officers.
“Ellison made a split-second decision, under uncertain and evolving circumstances, that Keagan’s gun was loaded, that Keagan may have been under the influence of drugs and suicidal and that Keagan may very well turn the weapon on Ellison.”

Miller further stated that Ellison’s conduct was justified in this case, adding that “While Keagan’s death is a tragedy, it was objectively reasonable for Ellison to use deadly force given the totality of the circumstances. Keagan was armed, suicidal, possibly under the influence of drugs, not engaging with nor responding to the officers, and refusing to comply with repeated orders to drop his weapon.

“For these reasons, Keagan presented a significant threat of death or serious bodily injury to officers at the scene. Indeed, Keagan could have quickly pointed the gun at Ellison and opened fire almost instantaneously.”

Miller said that judgement on the pleadings is appropriate because, “after taking all of the facts plaintiffs allege as true and drawing all inferences in their favor, the plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

“The use of lethal force was objectively reasonable under the circumstances and defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims in their individual capacities.
“Claims brought against defendants in their official capacities and claims against the city of Benton must be dismissed due to a lack of an underlying constitutional violation.”

As for the plaintiff’s claim of a violation of the Fifth Amendment, Miller stated that the claim is dismissed as a matter of law, “as the Fifth Amendment applies to federal actors, not state actors. The remaining claims brought under state law are dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”

Richard E. Holiman, of Holiman Law Firm in Little Rock and legal counsel for the Schweikle family, said he is disappointed in the dismissal and that he “is looking at all options.”