The family of a slain local, who died after Madison Police Officer Stephen Heimsness shot him three times in the chest, filed a federal lawsuit against Heimsness, Police Chief Noble Wray and the City of Madison Thursday.
Attorney Jeff Scott Olson is representing Paul Heenan’s family, who is seeking civil “damages and other appropriate relief,” by claiming Heimsness and the police department violated Heenan’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights the night of Nov. 9, 2012, and when dealing with the aftermath of the incident, according to the complaint.
Heimsness fatally wounded 30-year-old Paul Heenan Nov. 9 while responding to an early morning burglary call after Heenan drunkenly mistook his neighbors’ house for his own.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures,” while the Fourteenth Amendment dictates local and state agencies must act in accordance with federal laws regarding, among other things, Due Process and Equal Protection of the Law. Due Process prohibits officials from depriving citizens of “life, liberty or property without legislative authorization.”
According to the online Library of Congress, the Fourteenth Amendment is invoked in more lawsuits than any other amendment.
The Madison Police Department found Heimsness innocent of criminal wrongdoing in January after performing an internal investigation, and in June, Wray requested the Police and Fire Commission terminate Heimsness’ employment, however, he withdrew the complaint when Heimsness resigned several days later. On Aug. 7, Wray announced his retirement after spending nearly nine years at his post.
Olson claims the inquiry showed Heimsness has had a disturbingly large number of complaints filed against his behavior since joining the force in 1997, and he has personally dealt with two.
The majority of civil cases, such as this one, are settled sometime between being filed and going to trial, according to Olson, who said he is unsure how the Heenan case will play out because it is “so unique in so many ways.”
He said it is unlikely a judge will order the city or the police department to revise their policies, because the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that the plaintiff must be in a position to directly benefit from any injunctive relief that should come out of the court.
“The wrongful actions have to have the potential of happening again to the same person,” Olson said. “And of course that’s not going to happen in this case because Mr. Heenan is not around to be shot again.”
Instead, the Heenan family and Olson are hoping the lawsuit will motivate the public to put pressure on municipal agencies and therefore serve as a mechanism through which change will come about by decisions made in the mayor’s office, the city Council and the police department, according to Olson.
“If enough public pressure is brought to bear on those points, we might begin to see some changes in the way things are done,” Olson said.
When asked if he believes the lawsuit will be more successful than the past year’s demonstrations and petitions in response to the high-profile affair, Olson replied “I do believe that these cases, each of them, have an incremental impact for good on protecting the rights of our citizens.”
Specifically, the hope is to change the department’s approach to allegations like these to “make sure that they’re investigated searchingly and by independent and disinterested people, rather than the friends and co-workers of the accused officer,” Olson said. “Also, I think the city needs to look at whether it’s joining this national bandwagon trend of the increasing militarization of police tactics.”
City Attorney Michael May could not be reached for a comment.