Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, October 15, 2002


Page 3


City Not Liable for LAPD’s Detention of Wrong Suspect—Ninth Circuit


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Los Angeles police officers did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of a Los Feliz man mistakenly detained for 45 minutes to an hour after another man tried to break into a neighbor’s house, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

A divided panel affirmed a summary judgment in favor of the city and its officers, who stopped Francisco Gallegos as a suspect in the attempted burglary of the residence directly across the street from his on Independence Day 1999.

Judge Barry G. Silverman, joined by Senior Judge Arthur L. Alarcon, agreed with U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real of the Central District of California that Francisco Gallegos was the subject of a “reasonable investigatory stop.” Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson dissented, arguing the officers could have quickly determined that Gallegos was not their suspect.

The incident resulted from an early evening phone call by Gallegos’ neighbor, Jessica Morales, who said her father—against whom she had obtained a restraining order—was trying to break into her house on Melbourne Avenue. She gave police his name, and said he was a Hispanic male wearing a red shirt and blue pants.

A police helicopter flew over the scene. The officers in the craft saw Gallegos, wearing a red shirt—but not blue pants—and mistook him for Morales’ father.

They notified officers on the ground, as Gallegos drove off in his truck. He was stopped a few miles from the scene and taken back to his street, where a neighbor told the officers he was not the man trying to break into Morales’ house.

Gallegos’ family came out of their home and began arguing with the officers. A police supervisor came to the scene, spoke to the family, and eventually directed the officers to remove the handcuffs and take Gallegos back to his truck.

Silverman, in his opinion for the Court of Appeals, agreed that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest Gallegos. But officers are entitled, even in the absence of probable cause, to detain a person briefly, upon reasonable suspicion, in order to investigate whether the person may have committed a crime, the judge said.

The plaintiff, Silverman noted, did not dispute that the officers had reasonable suspicion, but claimed that he was held so long that the detention crossed the line into an arrest and thus constituted an unreasonable seizure of his person.

The Ninth Circuit, the judge explained, does not apply a “bright line rule” for distinguishing between a detention and an arrest, but requires a “fact-specific inquiry” guided by U.S. Supreme Court decisions on general Fourth Amendment reasonableness.

There were several aspects of the detention—Gallegos being ordered from his truck at gunpoint and handcuffed, the length of time that he was held, and the availability of less intrusive options—that could have supported a finding of an arrest in combination with other facts, Silverman acknowledged.

But the totality of the circumstances supported the summary judgment, he said.

“The whole point of an investigatory stop, as the name suggests, is to allow police to investigate, in this case to make sure that they have the right person,” he wrote. “For police to draw their guns in ordering Gallegos from the truck, when unsure if he was armed; for police to handcuff Gallegos in the back of a patrol car, when unsure of who he was; and for police to bring him back to Melbourne Ave. — this was not, under the circumstances, an unreasonable way of finding out if Gallegos was the person they were looking for.”

Rawlinson disagreed. What the officers should have done, she argued in dissent, was to check his identification to see if his name matched that of the suspect, questioned him, and then contacted dispatch for additional information to determine whether he might be the person who tried to break into Morales’ house.

Past Ninth Circuit cases, she said, recognize this “standard police identification process”—“a concept which the majority apparently eschews.”

The case is Gallegos v. City of Los Angeles, 01-56021.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company