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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

IL Supreme Court Narrows Absolute Immunity for Injuries Resulting from Escaping Prisoners

The Illinois Supreme Court recently issued an opinion limiting the application of absolute immunity for local public entities and public employees under Section 4-106(b) of the Tort Immunity Act (Act) as it relates to prisoners in custody. Robinson v. Village of Sauk Village

Robinson filed a complaint against two municipalities and individual police officers (collectively, Defendants) to recover for injuries he suffered after he was hit by a vehicle that had been fleeing the Defendant police officers. Police had received a stolen vehicle report, located the vehicle in motion, and attempted to stop it with emergency lights. The vehicle fled at a high rate of speed through multiple jurisdictions, committed multiple traffic violations and crossed into Indiana before stopping in a parking lot. The lead officer positioned his squad car perpendicular to the vehicle’s driver door and exited drawing his firearm on the suspect. The lead officer approached the vehicle but remained approximately 10 feet away. The suspect remained in the closed vehicle and ignored orders to exit. Instead the suspect repeatedly shouted, “shoot me” and pointed a bottle and a small black object at the lead officer. Notably, the officers did not block the vehicle or otherwise directly limit or control the suspect’s movement. Unrestricted, the suspect drove away at a high rate of speed into Illinois with officers in pursuit. During the pursuit, the suspect struck and severely injured Robinson in an intersection cross walk. The suspect continued to flee to Indiana where he was fatally shot by Indiana police officers.

The circuit court ruled in favor of the Defendants in granting their motion for summary judgment, finding Defendants were immune from liability because the suspect was "in custody" for purposes of Section 4-106(b) of the Tort Immunity Act when officers pointed weapons at him in the parking lot and ordered him to show his hands. Section 4-106(b) of the Act provides, in part, “[n]either a local public entity nor a public employee is liable for *** [a]ny injury inflicted by an escaped or escaping prisoner.” The Act defines “prisoner” as a person held in custody. 

The appellate court disagreed with the circuit court, holding that the suspect was not an “escaped or escaping prisoner” as required for absolute immunity under the Act. The appellate court further noted custody is not defined by the Act but a mere show of authority by police officers is insufficient to establish physical custody. Because the suspect’s freedom of movement was not controlled by the officers, he was not in custody before he fled the parking lot. As such, the appellate court reversed the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment.

On appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, Defendants argued that the demonstration of authority by police officers when they drew their weapons and gave orders in the parking lot was sufficient to establish custody under the Act. Robinson countered by arguing that a show of authority does not establish custody under the Act and that previous Supreme Court case law defined custody as control over a suspect’s freedom of movement. Robinson further argued that if a mere show of authority is sufficient to establish custody under the Act, absolute immunity would be invoked every time a police officer tells a person to stop or activates emergency equipment.

The Court looked to the Black’s Law Dictionary definition of “custody” which could mean actual imprisonment or physical detention or mere power, legal or physical, of imprisoning or taking manual possession. Without determining how broad the term custody may be, the Court concluded the act of directly controlling and limiting someone’s freedom of movement, i.e. being placed in a squad car, was custody within the meaning of the Act. Further, the Court concluded the phrase “held in custody” requires some direct restriction or control of a person’s freedom of movement to a particular place for at least a limited period of time. Moreover, the term prisoner refers to a person subject to some level of physical confinement.

Here, the suspect was partially surrounded by 6 officers with weapons drawn. However, the suspect remained in the vehicle with the engine running and ignored commands. The officers attempted to restrain and control the suspects movements but failed because they did not physically block his ability to move to a particular place. In conclusion, the Court agreed with the appellate court that a mere show of authority is insufficient to establish a person is “held in custody” under the Act. Particularly in this case, the failure of the police officers to block the suspect’s freedom of movement with their police vehicles or otherwise control his movement meant that the absolute immunity provision of the Act did not apply since the suspect was not an escaped or escaping prisoner. Until a person’s freedom of movement to a particular place is directly limited or controlled by law enforcement, they are not an “escaped or escaping prisoner” within the meaning of the Act to trigger absolute immunity. In short, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court that summary judgment should not have been granted to Defendants, and the Court remanded the case back for further proceedings.

Post Authored by Bryan Strand, Ancel Glink


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