Tuesday, November 20, 2012
C.A. Revives Excessive Force Suit Against Sheriff’s Department
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has reinstated a suit against Los Angeles County by an Echo Park resident who claims he suffered severe injuries after being violently arrested by a sheriff’s deputy outside a West Hollywood club in 2008.
Div. Three ruled Friday that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu erred in granting nonsuit in Salvador Aguirre’s action. Justice Patti S. Kitching, in an unpublished opinion, said the plaintiff presented sufficient evidence of excessive force to establish a prima facie case.
Aguirre, who was 18 at the time, acknowledged that he had been drinking and smoking marijuana earlier in the day, and said he and some friends drank beer in a parking lot across from the club before going inside.
He and his girlfriend testified that they went into the club, then came outside to look for a friend. When they did, they said, two officers approached him, grabbed him, and escorted him away from the club and toward Deputy Sheriff Daniel Riordan
Aguirre, who said he was “buzzed” but not “drunk,” said he was handcuffed behind his back and was greeted with belligerence when he asked why he was being arrested. The officers swore at him, he said, and he began to move a few steps away from Riordan.
He denied that he was trying to run away, saying he only wanted to “clarify” the reasons for his arrest. Riordan, he said, then tackled him “like...a football player might tackle someone.”
Severe Injuries Claimed
The plaintiff, who weighed 140 pounds, and was about five feet 11 inches tall, said he suffered severe injuries, including a fractured jaw, loss of two front teeth, a concussion, a split lip, impaired hearing, and migraines.
He filed suit, alleging several tort and civil rights causes of action. His federal civil rights claims were thrown out on demurrer, but the case went to trial on his tort claims and a civil rights claim under the state’s Bane Act.
The county defended on grounds of qualified immunity and statutory immunity, including under Government Code Sec. 845.8. The statute immunizes public entities and employees against liability for injuries caused by “escaping and escaped prisoner[s],” “escaping or escaped arrested person[s],” or “person[s] resisting arrest.”
While Aguirre’s girlfriend and two other witnesses supported his version of events, Riordan—called by the plaintiff—said he approached Aguirre because a parking lot attendant on the same side of the street as the club called police to complain about people drinking.
He said Aguirre had walked toward the club in an unsteady manner, and that Riordan “ran” away from him. He and the other officers also testified that they were in a difficult situation because at least two dozen individuals, most of them dressed in punk rock attire, were advancing on them and shouting profanities, forcing them to draw their weapons and warn the crowd to retreat.
A police conduct expert called by the plaintiff testified that Riordan lacked probable cause to arrest the plaintiff for public drunkenness and that “the tackling of a handcuffed subject from the back was improper.”
The grant of nonsuit at the close of the plaintiff’s evidence was error, Kitching explained, because the plaintiff presented substantial evidence to support his claims of assault, battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, and negligence.
Citing the usual rule that when the defendant prevails on a nonsuit, the appellate court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, the justice said a reasonable juror might have concluded that Aguirre was not visibly intoxicated, and that the officer was mistaken about his being the person walking from the parking lot on the same side of the street, and that Riordan thus lacked probable cause to arrest him.
The jurist also said that if jurors believed that Riordan executed a football-style tackle on a handcuffed and at least partially inebriated suspect, they could find that he used excessive force.
Kitching went on to note that the qualified immunity defense applies only to federal, not state, claims, and said Sec. 845.8 did not support the nonsuit because there were triable issues as to whether the plaintiff was “escaping,” whether he was resisting arrest, and whether he “caused” his own injuries.
The county, she added, frivolously argued that it is immune from “common law” negligence claims based on Government Code Sec. 815, the catchall provision that public entities are immune from liability except as provided by statute.
Mitchell Keiter argued the case for the plaintiff, while John M. Coleman and Stephanie H. Hsieh of Coleman & Associates represented the county.
The case is Aguirre v. County of Los Angeles, B233228.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company