Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Court Revives Suit Accusing State Agents of Illegal Detention
Ninth Circuit Panel Overturns Qualified Immunity Ruling in Suit by Fishermen Alleging ‘Vendetta’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Members of a family of commercial fishermen who accuse state fish and wildlife officials of numerous acts of harassment, including a traffic stop that led to criminal charges, which the plaintiffs claim was made for no legitimate reason, may sue for violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Longtime fisherman Joseph Tarabochia and his sons Matthew, Alex and Bryan alleged in their complaint that four agents of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have been engaged in a “personal vendetta” against them in the year 2000. They presented evidence that the agents had followed family members on the road, detained them without charges, confronted and threatened them on their boat, followed the younger brothers to school, threatened to “get” them on unspecified charges, and charged them with at least 27 criminal violations “in at least  cases, in four [different] jurisdictions,” none of which resulted in convictions.
The complaint also alleged that the officers had falsely accused Joseph Tarabochia of being a threat to public safety, and that when he complained and requested a meeting the local prosecutor and the director of the state department, two officers made an “outrageous” attempt to frisk him and then left the meeting after the prosecutor refused to allow them to complete the frisk.
The immediate cause of the suit was a 2007 stop. As related by the plaintiffs, the officers attempted to pull the plaintiffs over as they returned from fishing for salmon along the Columbia River.
When they initially failed to stop, Capt. Michael Cenci pulled his vehicle in front of theirs. The Tarabochias refused to exit their vehicle until local law enforcement arrived, saying they distrusted the state officers.
About 12 minutes later, a Wahkiakum County sheriff’s deputy arrived. The officers then inspected the catch, finding no evidence of any violations, but charged the Tarabochias with, among other things, “avoiding a wildlife field inspection.”
A state trial judge threw out the charges after finding that there was no legal cause for the stop.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle of the Western District of Washington granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on grounds of qualified immunity. He ruled that the officers could have had an objectively reasonable belief that they were making a valid administrative stop.
Senior Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, writing for the Ninth Circuit, disagreed.
“It was clearly established on the date of the automobile stop at issue here that the Tarabochias had a Fourth Amendment right not to be stopped by WDFW officers while driving on a highway absent reasonable suspicion the Tarabochias had or were about to engage in unlawful activity,” the judge wrote.
The court, he noted, had previously applied that basic rule to an automobile stop of a commercial fisher.
Exception Not Applicable
The administrative search exception did not apply, Hawkins said, because Washington law did not authorize such a search to be carried out in the manner this one was.
The judge wrote;
“Instead of inspecting the Tarabochias’ catch and commercial fishing records in the field, at a commercial fishing establishment, or through a fish and wildlife checkpoint—all of which, both parties agree, would have been authorized under Washington law—the WDFW officers decided to stop the Tarabochias as they traveled in their pickup truck on a highway. They effectuated this stop despite admittedly lacking any suspicion of unlawful behavior or statutory authority that would permit this search under the administrative search exception. We hold that, under these circumstances, this stop, and the search that followed, constituted a Fourth Amendment violation.”
Judges Johnnie Rawlinson and Carlos Bea concurred.
The case is Tarabochia v. Adkins, 11-35837.
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