Deputies Had Basis to Detain for Questioning Persons Who Were Not Suspected of Crimes
Opinion Says Sons’ Threat of Mass Shooting at School Constituted Rare Circumstance Where Restriction on Liberty Was Justified
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday declared that the detention by sheriff’s deputies of a husband and wife who were suspected of no wrongdoing but who apparently had information as to the whereabouts of their son who had threatened to commit a mass shooting at his high school was legally justified, but the handcuffing and rough treatment of the husband was not.
District Court Judge James V. Selna of the Central District of California, sitting by designation, authored the opinion. It affirms District Court Judge Morrison C. England Jr.’s grant of summary judgment to the Sacramento Sheriff’s Office and members of that office on the claim by Celia Bernal but reverses judgment by the Eastern District judge as to the claim by William Bernal.
The couple’s son, Ryan Bernal, had texted a friend saying he intended to “shoot up the school, and today was the day.” The day was March 5, 2018.
A deputy, learning of the threat, telephoned Celia Bernal seeking information as to where her son, who was not at school, could be found. The woman said he was at his grandmother’s house but declined to provide the address, not knowing whether the stranger who was calling was actually a law enforcement officer.
Six deputies arrived at the Bernal’s home. When Celia Bernal tried to leave by automobile, a “twist-lock” was applied to her.
Selna explained in a footnote:
“A twist-lock is a type of control hold which uses pain to gain control. After a twist-lock is applied, most people bend forward on account of the pain.”
William Bernal shouted at officers to unhand his wife and tried to record the encounter on his cell phone and was handcuffed and battered.
Legality of Detention
Addressing the legality of the detention, against a Fourth Amendment claim, Selna wrote:
“This case presents a particularly unique question: whether and to what extent law enforcement may detain people who are not suspected of engaging in criminal activity but who have information essential to preventing a threatened school shooting. Generally, when no reasonable suspicion exists, police have no authority to detain….However, the Supreme Court has recognized an exception to this general rule in certain circumstances, permitting the detention of non-suspect witnesses for the purpose of obtaining information….In contemplating this exception, we concluded that the government’s interest is greatly decreased when detaining non-suspect witnesses….Thus, until now, we have not upheld a suspicionless witness detention because the government’s interests in solving crime did not outweigh the individuals’ liberty interests.”
He went on to say:
“[W]e hold that the Deputies had limited authority to briefly detain and question the Bernals about Ryan’s location due primarily to the exigencies inherent in preventing an imminent school shooting.”
Selva said the “emergency presented by an impending school shooting coupled with the information the Deputies knew the Bernals possessed constituted…‘special circumstances’ ” justifying the detention.
Summary judgment was properly granted to the defendants, based on qualified immunity, as to the wife’s claim, Selna said—remarking that “a twist-lock is one of the least intrusive control holds available” in stopping a person from leaving and that Celia Bernal was restrained for only a few minutes—but that actions toward William Bernal, if his account is accurate, were not justified.
“According to William, the Deputies pointed a gun at him, kicked his legs apart, turned his head beyond its natural range of motion, kicked his knees to force his legs to buckle, smashed his head into the hood of the car, and tightly handcuffed him, resulting in a great deal of pain.” The judge set forth: “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Bernals, we find a triable issue of fact regarding whether the Deputies’ commands to William were lawful. Verbally challenging and recording officers are not illegal actions, and thus orders to cease such actions are not lawful orders…..Therefore, when William did not comply with the Deputies’ orders to put his phone down and stop yelling, he was not disobeying a lawful command….Accordingly, the Deputies were not acting lawfully when they restrained William, negating any probable cause they had to arrest him….”
The defendants contended that the deputies did have probable cause to arrest William Bernal for violating Penal Code §148 which provides, in subd. (a)(1):
“Every person who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any…peace officer…in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office or employment, when no other punishment is prescribed, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by both that fine and imprisonment.”
First Amendment Protection
Selna said in a footnote:
“Because William engaged in protected First Amendment conduct and did not physically interfere with the Deputies* performance of their duties, the Deputies did not have probable cause to arrest him under Section 148.”
The case is Bernal v. Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, 22-15690.
Eventually, the Bernals led the deputies to the grandmother’s house. Ryan Bernal was arrested by officers of the Folsom Police Department.
He pled no contest to a misdemeanor violation of Penal Code §422 by willfully threatening “to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the statement.”
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