Car Theft Victim Sues Omaha Cop for Undue Force

Federal case law summary: Unreasonable force by police.

Daniel Retz v. William Seaton. Unreasonable force by police.

Daniel Retz's problems began when his car got stolen in November, 2008. But things got even worse when he got the car back. He reported the theft to the Bellevue, Nebraska, Police Department. Nine days later, he found out that the car had been spotted in an Omaha parking lot, and he called 911 to report the good news. Omaha Police Detective William Seaton arrived at the parking lot with two other Omaha police officers. In possession of the stolen car they found Retz's ex-girlfriend, Emily Coufal.

There was apparently a great deal of animosity between Retz and Coufal, especially after Retz caught her red-handed in possession of the stolen car. One of the officers sensed this animosity and wisely instructed Retz to sit in the back of a squad car, in an effort to prevent any domestic violence from flaring up.

The police cited Coufal for unauthorized use of the vehicle, and then released the car back to Retz. As Retz walked back to his newly liberated car, he looked into the squad car in which Coufal was being detained. Undoubtedly somewhat irritated by the whole situation, he made a gesture involving his middle finger and mouthed an obscenity in her direction.

Detective Seaton was not amused by this display. He placed Retz under arrest for disorderly conduct, and ordered him to place his hands on the hood of the car. Retz dutifully complied with this request.

Detective Seaton then told Retz to place his right arm behind his back. Retz had just had surgery, and it was physically impossible for him to place his arm behind his back. Retz had recently had surgery for a rotator cuff injury. He later testified that he told the detective that this was impossible because of the surgery. But the detective wasn't buying it. The detective reportedly told him that he didn't care, and that he would "show you how far back it will go." Seaton pulled back the arm, the shoulder dislocated, and Retz hit the ground in pain.

Another officer took over, and handcuffed Retz in front of his body. At this point, Retz referred to Detective Seaton using another obscene term, this time out loud. The detective was apparently not pleased at this show of disrespect from the injured man. According to Retz, Seaton then pushed his back into the ground. However, all three of the officers testified that Seaton did not push him to the ground.

Retz sued Seaton in the federal court in Nebraska. The jury agreed that Seaton had used excessive force, and awarded Retz over $30,000 in damages. Dissatisfied with this turn of events, Detective Seaton, citing three perceived procedural errors by the trial court, appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit.

Seaton first argued that Retz should not have been allowed to voluntarily dismiss the "official capacity" claims during the trial. During the trial, Detective Seaton had attempted to offer into evidence a letter from that the Omaha Chief of Police had sent to Retz. In this letter, the Chief had advised Retz that the allegation against Seaton had not been sustained. Seaton argued that this letter was critical evidence, because it showed that Seaton could not have been acting in any official capacity when he allegedly used excessive force. But Retz wanted to keep this letter away from the jury. To ensure that the letter stayed out of evidence, Retz asked to dismiss the official capacity claim. On appeal, Seaton argued that allowing this part of the case to be dismissed was error. However, the Court of Appeals held that the dismissal was well within the trial court's discretion, even though this claim had allowed Retz to offer some otherwise inadmissible evidence himself before the dismissal.

Seaton also argued that the trial court should not have allowed questions as to alternative courses of action available to the police. For example, one of those questions was whether the officers "could have just left the scene." The Court of Appeals held, however, that this question was a reasonable one, since it explored a possible alternative course of action.

Finally, Seaton argued that the jury should have been instructed that officers are not required to use only the "most prudent course" available to them. However, the Court of Appeals looked at the instructions as a whole and determined that they were adequate. The Court took particular note of the instruction that cautioned that officers do not have the benefit of hindsight and are not expected to rely on it. The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that the instructions fairly and accurately presented the law.

For these reasons, the Court of Appeals affirmed the jury's verdict.

No. 13-2117 (8th Cir. Feb. 3, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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