Wednesday, August 1, 2007
C.A. Reinstates False Arrest Suit Against County, Deputy
Qualified Immunity No Defense to State Law Claim, Justices Hold in Second Reversal
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The doctrine of qualified immunity, under which a public officer will not be held liable for a federal civil rights violation if he or she acted in good faith, has no application to a claim based on a state statute, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Seven reinstated a Civil Code Sec. 52.1 claim by David and Beatriz Venegas against the county and Deputy Sheriff Robert Harris, saying triable issues exist as to whether Harris deprived the couple of their civil rights by means of threats, intimidation, or coercion.
The court, however, affirmed the dismissal of the couple’s Sec. 52.1 claim against the City of Vernon and one of its officers, as well as battery claims against the city and county.
The ruling represents the second time the Venegases have won an appellate reversal of an adverse ruling by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel S. Pratt in the case, which dates back to 1998.
Officers from several law enforcement agencies around Los Angeles County in an auto theft task force were investigating car thefts in June of that year 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 the 1989 Cougar was in a high-theft class of cars.
The officers confronted David 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.
Beatriz Venegas wife signed the form while her husband, handcuffed, was placed in the back of the police van. She was driven to the house and the license was recovered, but then police conducted a thorough search of the house, which the plaintiffs alleged went far beyond the scope of the license search.
Meanwhile, David 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.
Suing under state and federal civil rights statutes and for various torts, the plaintiffs went to trial before Pratt, who granted nonsuit, finding that David 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.
The Court of Appeal reversed, however, in 2002, holding that there were issues with regard to qualified immunity that should have been resolved by the jury. The California Supreme Court, however, reversed in part and sent the case back to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration.
In 2004, the Court of Appeal held that the sheriff’s deputies were entitled to qualified immunity under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, but sent the case back to the trial court with regard to the state causes of action. Pratt then granted summary judgment in favor of all defendants.
But Justice Earl Johnson Jr., writing for the Court of Appeal, said there is no precedent for applying qualified immunity to a Sec. 52.1 claim, nor anything in the legislative history to suggest the Legislature, which has enacted various statutory immunities with respect to police officers, intended to permit such a defense under the section relied on by the plaintiffs.
The justice acknowledged that in creating a narrow state remedy for rights violations involving threats, intimidation or coercion, lawmakers patterned the act after a Massachusetts law, which that state’s highest court has interpreted as incorporating a qualified immunity defense.
That ruling, however, is not binding on California courts, Johnson said, adding that “it is too much of a stretch to presume our Legislature intended to incorporate the doctrine of qualified immunity into section 52.1 on the basis of a Massachusetts decision holding qualified immunity applies to the law on which section 52.1 was modeled.”
While reinstating the claims against the county and Harris, however, the court declined to reinstate the plaintiffs’ causes of action against Vernon and its officer, saying there was no evidence Detective Steve Wiles violated anyone’s civil rights.
Attorneys on appeal were Robert Mann and Donald W. Cook for the plaintiffs; David D. Lawrence, Jin S. Choi and Scott E. Caron of Franscell, Strickland, Roberts & Lawrence for the county; and Frank Revere, Gabriel Dermer and Annie Kyureghian of Revere & Wallace for Vernon and Wiles.
The case is Venegas v. County of Los Angeles, B186764.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company