Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, December 26, 2002


Page 1


C.A. Reinstates Rights Suit Against County, Says Jury Should Have Been Allowed to Decide Probable Cause for Search


By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer


A probationer who sued officers for false arrest and unreasonable search and seizure will get his day in court under a ruling Tuesday by this district’s Court of Appeal.

Reversing a judgment of nonsuit entered by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel Pratt, the appeals court ruled that David Venegas should be able to put his case before a jury.

Pratt erred, the appeals court ruled, in granting nonsuit to Los Angeles County and a host of law enforcement officials based on a determination of probable cause, in the same way a judge presiding over a criminal evidence suppression would.

In a civil rights case under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz wrote for the Court of Appeal, the issue of probable cause is a question for the jury.

“Here, the trial court, rather than the jury, attempted to resolve those issues,” Munoz wrote on assignment for this district’s Div. Seven. “This was error and we reverse.”

Officers from several law enforcement agencies around Los Angeles County in an auto theft task force were investigating car thefts in June 1998 while preparing to execute a search warrant on the home of Ricardo Venegas. With a photograph of the subject they instead found someone who looked like him—his younger brother, David Venegas, who was driving his Mercury Cougar with his wife to a gas station in Bellflower.

Some task force members followed the couple, noting that the1989 Cougar was in a high-theft class of cars.

The officers confronted Venegas and ended up handcuffing him, then began examining his car to see whether the vehicle identification numbers matched. They noted that there was no VIN posted on the car window.

They also demanded to see Venegas’ driver’s license. Unfortunately, Venegas had left it at home.

One of the officers then asked Venegas to sign an entry and search waiver form so they could go to his house and pick up his license. The purpose was to determine his valid identification so they could run his name through their system and determine whether there were any outstanding warrants on him.

Venegas’ wife signed the form while Venegas, handcuffed, was placed in the back of the police van. The wife was driven to the house and the license was recovered, but then police conducted a thorough search of the house far beyond the scope of the license search.

Meanwhile, Venegas was booked on suspicion of altering a vehicle identification number, based on the fact that police recovered a partial number on the engine block.

But after officers took apart the car door and found that the number there matched the block, they ordered him released. He was held for another two days before being let go.

In Venegas’ suit for false arrest and unlawful search and seizure, Pratt granted the defendants’ nonsuit motion, finding that Venegas looked like his brother, there were no visible vehicle identification numbers in the car, he was noncooperative with the officers, and had no drivers license-or other California identification-with him.

Munoz acknowledged that if the VIN had been removed, the officers had reasonable suspicion to believe he had violated a Vehicle Code section. The subsequent questioning was appropriate as incident what amounted to a traffic stop, they said, and the handcuffing was reasonable for protection when Venegas became hostile.

But even with reasonable suspicion, Munoz said, there facts warrant dismissal of the motion for nonsuit.

“On this record,” Munoz said, “the jury reasonably could have determined that the officers knew within minutes that Venegas was not his brother, that the information obtained by the officers at the gas station did nothing to implicate the Venegases in any offense other than the [Vehicle Code] violation, that the officers knew that they could have run the name ‘David Venegas’ through their system to see if any results matched up with the individual they had before them, that it was unnecessary for the officers to detain [his wife] further and accompany her into the Venegas home, and that the two-hour detention, including the search of the Venegas home, was not reasonably designed to quickly resolve the issue of Venegas’s identity.”

In other words, he said, a reasonable jury could conclude that the detention and search were not reasonably necessary to perform the duties incurred by virtue of the stop. They also could conclude that what amounted to a two-hour detention before Venegas was booked was not reasonably incident to a traffic stop.

As for the search of the home, the judge said, a jury also was competent to consider whether consent was properly given, and whether the officer exceeded the scope of the consent by continuing the search after they recovered the driver’s license.

The case is Venegas v. County of Los Angeles , 02 S.O.S. 6360.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company