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DNR officer wants state to foot the bill after he lied and got a woman falsely charged

By Brandon Smith, IPB News | Published on in Crime, Government, Law
The Indiana Supreme Court is considering whether the state should have to pay costs after a federal civil jury found a Department of Natural Resources officer's false statements caused a woman's false arrest. (Brandon Smith/IPB News)

An Indiana Department of Natural Resources officer wants taxpayers to foot the bill after he was sued by a woman who was falsely charged with a crime because of a lie the officer told.

Whether the state is responsible for paying the woman is at issue before the Indiana Supreme Court.

Kailee Leonard accidentally hit and killed the dog of DNR officer Scott Johnson in front of his home. She left the scene to get her fiancé and returned shortly after to tell Johnson what had happened.

Months later, Johnson spoke to a local prosecutor and told them she hadn’t returned until the next day. That led to Leonard being charged with leaving the scene of an accident. Those charges were eventually dropped, and she then sued Officer Johnson in federal civil court.

Leonard won that case, with Johnson ordered to pay more than $60,000 in damages and costs. Indiana law allows state employees to pass on those costs to the government — but only if the employee’s actions were within the scope of their duties and “noncriminal.”

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Attorney Ashley Sanchez, representing the state before the Indiana Supreme Court, said the situation is clear — the state shouldn’t have to pay for Johnson’s actions.

“The actual accusation made to secure liability here is that this officer did precisely what Indiana criminal statute forbids,” Sanchez said.

Leonard’s attorney, Jeff McQuary found himself in position almost defending the officer’s actions. He said the federal verdict didn’t require criminal actions by the officer.

“There isn’t enough evidence in this record to conclude that he knowingly and intentionally lied,” McQuary said.

There is no timetable for the court’s decision.

Brandon is our Statehouse bureau chief. Contact him at bsmith@ipbs.org or follow him on Twitter at @brandonjsmith5.