169 F.3d 428 (7th Cir. 1999), 97-3404, Harrell v. Cook

Docket Nº:97-3404.
Citation:169 F.3d 428
Party Name:Howard HARRELL and Sarah Harrell, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Donald COOK, Jack Woods, John Keenan, and a police officer unknown to plaintiffs, Defendants-Appellants.
Case Date:February 17, 1999
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
 
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Page 428

169 F.3d 428 (7th Cir. 1999)

Howard HARRELL and Sarah Harrell, Plaintiffs-Appellees,

v.

Donald COOK, Jack Woods, John Keenan, and a police officer

unknown to plaintiffs, Defendants-Appellants.

No. 97-3404.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

February 17, 1999

Argued Feb. 25, 1998.

Page 429

Charles W. Courtney, Jr. (argued), Belleville, IL, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

Kenneth D. Reifsteck (argued), Thomas, Mamer & Haughey, Champaign, IL, for Defendants-Appellants.

Before POSNER, Chief Judge, WOOD, JR., and DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judges.

Page 430

DIANE P. WOOD, Circuit Judge.

Not everyone believes that banks are the safest or most desirable place to keep cold, hard cash, notwithstanding the existence of safeguards like federal deposit insurance. Howard and Sarah Harrell were among the skeptics. The Harrells had in excess of $95,000 stashed away in a cooler in the crawl space under their house. One day, they discovered that the cash, but not the cooler, had vanished. This case arises out of their belief that the local police department bungled the investigation, or worse, when it lost key evidence. They sued Jacksonville, Illinois, police officers Donald Cook, Jack Woods, John Keenan, and any unknown officers involved in the disappearance of the cooler under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the officers deprived them of their due process rights to proceed against the suspected thief in court. The police responded with a motion to dismiss, which the district court denied. Before us now is the narrow question whether the district court correctly rejected the officers' claim of qualified immunity. We conclude that the court should have granted the officers' motion and dismissed the claims against them.

I

This case centers around one of two large containers the Harrells had buried in the crawl space beneath their house. One of the containers was an ordinary chest cooler, in which the Harrells had placed the extraordinary amount of $95,854.70. On July 11, 1995, the Harrells discovered that the chest cooler had been unearthed and its contents were missing. The only other party who had had access to the crawl space where the money was buried was a contractor whom the Harrells had hired to work on their home between January 9 and July 11, 1995.

The Harrells took their story and the now-empty cooler (as well as some smaller containers housed therein that the Harrells had used for organizing the money) to the Jacksonville Police. They spoke with Assistant Police Chief John Keenan, who told them that the contractor was his number-one suspect. (There is some disagreement in the record about the spelling of the name of defendant John "Keenan." We use here the spelling that Keenan's lawyer adopted, rather than plaintiffs' "Canaan" or the district court's "Keehan.") Keenan accepted possession of the cooler and its containers, saying that he would have them tested for fingerprints. The next day, Keenan told the Harrells that he would be sending investigators to their home to pursue the lost funds. More than two weeks later, Jacksonville Police Officer Jack Woods arrived to photograph the Harrell home. He broke the bad news that the cooler and its containers were missing, apparently lost by the police department. Although the Jacksonville police had a policy of placing evidence in the department's evidence room, the Harrells' evidence had last been seen in the police garage by Assistant Chief Keenan and Officers Woods and Cook.

Following the disappearance of the cooler, the Harrells repeatedly met with Cook to encourage the continued investigation of the theft. Despite their efforts, the police dropped the criminal case and made no effort to pursue the loss of the cooler. Moreover, as the Harrells' attorney explained at oral argument, without the cooler and the fingerprints they hoped to find on it, the Harrells did not believe they had enough evidence to pursue a...

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