Ninth Circuit Says Summary Judgment Improperly Granted; Declares That Jury Could Find That Detective Violated Gun Owner’s Due Process Rights by Not Giving Notice of Impending Destruction of Collection
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday revived a civil rights lawsuit brought against the City of Los Angeles by a former Glendale police officer who is seeking roughly $5 million in damages, alleging that his right to due process was breached by the failure to give him notice of the impending destruction of more than 300 firearms from his collection, seized during a 2004 sting operation.
The opinion by Judge Richard A. Paez reverses, in part, a summary judgment granted by District Court Judge Manuel L. Real of the Central District of California, who died in 2019. Real determined in a Dec 19, 2018 order that gun owner Wayne Wright’s due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment were not abridged because he had no entitlement to notice by the Los Angeles Police Department that it had sought and obtained a Los Angeles Superior Court order for the destruction of his property.
Real determined that individuals named in Wright’s suit—including Detective James Edwards who obtained the order—were entitled to qualified immunity because they had acted within the law and according to department policy.
Paez said in his opinion:
“We have no problem concluding that a rational trier of fact could find a due process violation under these circumstances. The wealth of precedent suggests that by failing to provide Wright with notice and the opportunity to be heard before the court issued the destruction order. Edwards denied Wright the most basic and fundamental guarantees of due process.”
Wright filed his lawsuit on July 31, 2015 under 42 U.S.C. §1983, seeking damages “in an amount of no less than $4,862,950.00.” He alleged constitutional violations, and sought to have the city held liable under the Monell doctrine based on a failure of the police chief and city attorney to cause the suitable training of officers.
The 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York establishes municipal liability in an action under 42 U.S.C. §1983 where an employee committing a constitutional violation was implementing a policy or custom.
At the time of the 2004 raid of his home in Ventura County’s Simi Valley, Wright had a collection of more than 400 firearms that he claimed were lawfully owned and valued at more than half a million dollars. The complaint said of the collection:
“Plaintiff’s firearm collection consisted of pistols, revolvers, long guns and paraphernalia that had great value as collector’s items, but very little value as ‘street weapons’ or as tools of terrorism, e.g.. Plaintiff collected old military rifles from the late 19th Century that no modern terrorist or street gang would use in a criminal act. The vast majority of Plaintiffs firearms collection consisted of old handguns, shotguns, and military rifles manufactured and used in the early part of the 20th Century.”
Wright pled guilty to a single felony count of illegally possessing an assault rifle, which a Ventura Superior Court judge on Aug. 17, 2006, reduced to a misdemeanor.
The LAPD eventually returned about 80 firearms to Wright and destroyed the rest through smelting after Edwards obtained an ex parte order in December 2013 from the same Los Angeles Superior Court judge—Melvin Sandvig—who had approved the 2004 warrant for the search of Wright’s property.
Wright contended Edwards pursued the ex parte order despite a 2011 Ventura Superior Court order instructing the parties to meet to determine ownership of the remaining firearms and to return to court if the effort was unsuccessful.
Paez noted that Edwards’ ex parte application contained misrepresentations that Wright had not provided any evidence of ownership and that the time for appeal had passed, even though Ventura Superior Court had not entered a final appealable order.
“Wright was deprived of his property twice. The first occurred when LAPD officers seized his firearms during the execution of a search warrant. That was a temporary deprivation that is not at issue.
“The second deprivation occurred when the LAPD destroyed Wright’s property amid ongoing negotiations between Wright and the LAPD. Key to this claim is that, without notice to Wright, Edwards sought an order from the Los Angeles Court granting permission to destroy Wrights firearms. Wright alleges that Edwards sought this order while the parties were still informally resolving the ownership dispute, as encouraged by the Ventura Court. The subsequent destruction of Wright’s firearms constituted a permanent deprivation and underscores the need for notice.”
Qualified immunity was unavailable, Paez said, because the wrongfulness of Edwards’s conduct was “clearly established,” pointing out:
“[W]e have no doubt that Edwards had fair notice that his conduct violated Wrights due process right to notice. Although ‘due process’ has been castigated as ‘cryptic’ and ‘abstract.’ its balustrades have been identified, time and again, as notice and an opportunity to be heard…California courts have for decades observed this straightforward rule, which adds to our confidence that the law was clearly established.”
“We are further convinced that the obligation to provide notice was clearly established given that Edwards was seeking ex parte permission to destroy the firearms—a permanent kind of deprivation.”
The opinion also reverses a grant of qualified immunity to former Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and City Attorney Mike Feuer. Each was sued in his official capacity, Paez noted, reciting that qualified immunity is available only to officials sued as individuals.
The complaint alleges that Beck—who was police chief at the time of the filing—was “one of the ultimate policy makers, if not the ultimate policy maker, for LAPD” and that Feuer had a similar capacity as to the Office of the City Attorney, and both had “direct control” over office policies.
Partially affirming Real’s judgment, Paez said that qualified immunity was properly granted to Deputy City Attorney Heather Aubry and LAPD detective Richard Tompkins because “there is no evidence linking Aubry or Tompkins to the alleged due process violation—failing to provide notice.”
Paez summed up:
“Because a rational trier of fact could find that Wright’s due process rights were violated and that Edwards was not entitled to qualified immunity, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment on this claim and his Monell failure-to-train claim against Beck, Feuer, and the City. We affirm the judgment as to Aubry and Tompkins. We remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
The case is Wright v. Beck, 19-55084.
Judges Consuelo M. Callahan and Lawrence VanDyke joined in Paez’s opinion.
In a separate memorandum opinion issued yesterday, the panel affirmed summary judgment on Wright’s claim under the Fourth Amendment. The judges said they could not “conclude that the law was ‘clearly established’ that the Fourth Amendment protected Wright’s interest against an unreasonable interference with his property,” thus entitling the defendants to qualified immunity.
Div. Three of the Court of Appeal for this district on May 24, 2019, affirmed an order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Teresa A. Beaudet granting an anti-SLAPP motion brought by the city, Aubry, Tompkins and Edwards in an action Wright brought against them for alleged “misrepresentations...that led to the destruction of his firearms by the LAPD.” Justice Anne H. Egerton said, in an unpublished opinion, that all actions the defendants took came under the litigation privilege.
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