Monday, January 11, 2016
C.A. Throws Out $1.1 Million Verdict in Police Shooting Case
Panel Says Claim Barred by Plaintiff’s Juvenile Court Admission He Brandished Toy Gun
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A teenager who admitted in juvenile court that he brandished a toy gun at sheriff’s deputies could not later sue them for violating his civil rights, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Friday.
Div. One reversed a judgment in favor of William Fetters, who was shot by Deputy Sheriff Stephen Sorrow in 2009, when he was 15 years old. Fetters had been awarded more than $1.1 million in damages and more than twice that amount in attorney fees.
Fetters had been playing “cops and robbers” with friends and was riding a bicycle. Sorrow and his partner, traveling in the opposite direction, when saw Fetters and his replica semiautomatic pistol.
The deputies made a U-turn, came up behind Fetters, and ordered him to stop. Fetters subsequently testified that the deputies ordered him to drop the toy, and that he did so; both deputies testified he turned toward them with the plastic gun in his hand before Sorrow shot him.
Two civilian eyewitnesses also testified. One backed Fetters’s version of events, the other said Fetters did not drop the gun before being shot and that he turned toward the deputies, but could not tell if Fetters pointed the gun toward the deputies.
Another witness testified that Fetters had pointed what appeared to be a pistol at him and his daughter earlier in the day and that it looked “real” and made him “nervous” enough to send his daughter inside their house and chase Fetters away.
After the incident, Fetters was taken to a hospital for treatment. He was charged in juvenile court with three counts of brandishing a replica gun—the two deputies and one other person were the named victims—in violation of Penal Code 417.4, and admitted the charges.
He was placed on six months informal probation, which he completed, and the charges were dismissed. He later sued for violation of civil rights under 42 U.S.C. §1983.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige, after hearing six days of testimony without a jury, rejected the defense claim that the action was barred by Heck v. Humphrey (1994) 512 U.S. 477. The case holds that a person convicted of a crime cannot sue under §1983 if a judgment in the plaintiff’s favor would necessarily imply the invalidity of the conviction or sentence.
A criminal defendant who challenges his or her conviction or sentence on appeal or in post-judgment proceedings may only bring a §1983 suit upon securing a “favorable termination” of the case.
Hiroshige reasoned that the juvenile court adjudication was not a conviction in the Heck sense. The case then proceeded before a jury, which awarded nearly $1.128 million in compensatory damages but deadlocked as to punitive damages.
The judge subsequently awarded the plaintiff $2.317 million in attorney fees.
Justice Jeffrey Johnson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge erred in holding that Heck did not apply.
Contrary to the plaintiff’s arguments, he said, the juvenile court’s adjudication was a conviction under Heck.
Johnson rejected the argument that the admission was equivalent to a plea of no contest. Even if it was, he added, a conviction pursuant to a no-contest plea is still a conviction within the meaning of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The justice also noted that Heck applies following a conviction or sentence. Because probation is a form of punishment under California law, Fetters was sentenced for Heck purposes.
Johnson also rejected the argument that the damage award under §1983 would not necessarily imply the invalidity of the conviction or sentence. Fetters’s admission that he brandished a replica gun at the deputy in a threatening manner with intent to cause fear of bodily harm, which are the elements of §417.4, necessarily establishes that Sorrow’s “split-second use of deadly force” was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the jurist said.
Melinda W. Ebelhar, Nicole Davis Tinkham, Catherine M. Mathers, Christian E. Foy Nagy, Eric C. Brown and David C. Moore of Collins, Collins, Muir + Stewart represented Sorrow and the county on appeal. Bradley C. Gage, Terry M. Goldberg, and Milad Sadr of Goldberg & Gage represented the plaintiff, along with Gerald M. Serlin, Douglas G. Benedon and Wendy S. Albers of Benedon & Serlin and Robert R. Shiri and Sanford M. Gage.
The case is Fetters v. County of Los Angeles, 15 S.O.S. 142.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company