Monday, April 19, 2004
Ninth Circuit Reinstates Brutality Suit Against Orange County, Deputy
Panel Says Judge Usurped Jury Function in Throwing Out Dentist’s Action
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stottler of the Central District of California usurped the jury function when she granted a summary judgment in favor of Orange County and a sheriff’s deputy accused of injuring a dentist so badly he had to give up his practice, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The panel, comprised of Senior Judge Otto R. Skopil Jr. and John T. Noonan and Judge Marsha Berzon, reinstated Dr. Gerald Wall’s suit against Deputy Sheriff Harry Joseph Watson and Orange County under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983. The panel found that there were triable issues as to whether the deputy committed false arrest and/or false imprisonment and whether the county had a policy or practice of encouraging such misconduct.
Wall claims Watson “physically attacked” him from behind while Wall was complying with the officer’s order to leave the service area of a car wash where Wall allegedly got into an argument with the owner. The argument concerned the owner’s request for Wall’s address and phone number and Wall’s insistence that he had no obligation to give it.
Wall said he no longer wanted to do business at that point and asked for the car back, but that the owner said he could not return the car because it was already being serviced. Wall admitted being agitated but denied swearing or threatening anyone or interfering with the business, and claimed the owner assaulted him.
The dentist said the deputy, who came to the scene after the owner called police, grabbed him by his wrist, bent and twisted his arm, and forced him “face first down” into a car, smashing his face, chest, and glasses.
The plaintiff also accused Watson of handcuffing his hands “extremely tight” behind his back, picking him up by his handcuffed arms, throwing him “upside down” and head first into the patrol car, and forcing him to sit in the car waiting for about 20 minutes in what felt like 80 to 90 degree heat. Wall also said that the deputy twice refused to loosen the handcuffs en route to the police station, where Wall was booked before spending a night in jail.
Charges of resisting or obstructing an officer and interfering with a business by obstructing or intimidating customers were eventually dropped. Wall’s neurologist opined that he had suffered nerve damage as a result of the incident.
Stottler found that before Watson arrived, Wall had sworn at the car wash owner, refused to leave the service area, and otherwise interfered with business. She also found that the deputy warned him several times to leave before arresting him and that he never said the handcuffs were too tight.
Usurption of Jury
In so ruling, the judge adopted the county’s proposed findings with “miniscule changes“ and “almost entire ignore[ed] the declaration and deposition of Wall,” Noonan wrote for the appellate panel. “By deciding to rely on the defendants’ statement of fact, the district court became a jury,” Noonan declared.
“If Wall’s version of the facts is believed, he was arrested without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Watson testified that he arrested Wall because Wall stopped walking towards his car. Wall testified that he never stopped. He was walking away as directed and merely asked Watson to investigate a possible assault. Moreover, Wall never intimidated or obstructed employees or customers in Watson’s presence.”
Noonan noted that the officer could not, under California law, arrest Wall for a misdemeanor not committed in the officer’s presence, and that the constitutional reasonableness of an arrest is determined according to state law. The jurist also concluded that if the arrest was not only unreasonable, but as violent as the plaintiff and his doctor indicated, there was a Fourth Amendment violation.
As for the claim against the county, Noonan explained, it was dismissed entirely on the basis of the erroneous qualified immunity holding and must therefore be reinstated along with the claims against the deputy.
The case was argued by Robert M. Ross of Encino for the plaintiff and William F. Bernard of Orange for the defendant.
The case is Wall v. County of Orange, 02-56032.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company