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Media Alerts - Rivera v County of Los Angeles - Ninth Circuit
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April 1, 2014
  Rivera v County of Los Angeles - Ninth Circuit
Headline: Ninth Circuit affirms dismissal of constitutional and state law violations arising from a mistaken arrest and month long detention of the plaintiff

Area of Law: Civil rights

Issue Presented: Whether county agencies are liable under the Fourth amendment, Fourteenth amendment or state law claims of false imprisonment and the Bane Act for the plaintiff's mistaken arrest and month long detention based on a warrant for a suspect with the same name, date of birth, and similar physical description when the plaintiff had previously been issued a judicial clearance form.

Brief Summary: In 2009, the plaintiff was arrested on a warrant for a suspect with the same first and last name, despite the fact that the plaintiff had been previously arrested on the same warrant nearly 20 years earlier. The 2009 arrest resulted in the plaintiff being jailed for approximately one month prior to being released based on fingerprint analysis. The plaintiff sued two counties and two sheriff's departments for constitutional and state law violations based on his mistaken arrest and month-long detention, but all claims were dismissed by the trial court.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissals, holding that (1) the warrant was sufficiently particular since it contained the suspect's name and physical description, (2) the sheriff's deputies were reasonable in believing the plaintiff was the subject of the warrant since he had the same name and was physically similar to the description of the warrant, (3) the plaintiff's detention did not violate the Due Process Clause since he had access to the courts and circumstances did not indicate further investigation was needed, and (4) the state law claims were properly dismissed based on state law statutory immunities.

Extended Summary: In 1989, the plaintiff, Santiago Rivera, was arrested on a warrant for a suspect with the same name. After fingerprint analysis confirmed that the plaintiff was not the suspect sought by the warrant, Rivera was released and given a judicial clearance form. The warrant was then reissued with a physical description of the correct suspect and a date of birth that matched Rivera's, but did not specify that Rivera had been cleared. In 2009, a car in which Rivera was riding was stopped for a vehicle violation in San Bernardino. In response to questions about the 1989 warrant, Rivera claimed that he was not the warrant's subject but was unable to produce the judicial clearance form. Believing that Rivera was the subject of the warrant, the deputies arrested him.

The next morning, Rivera appeared in a Los Angeles Superior Court but failed to tell the judge that he was not the subject of the warrant. At his next court appearance, almost two weeks later, Rivera claimed he was not the subject of the warrant. However, because the Los Angeles archives experienced problems obtaining the documents with the true subject's fingerprints, the court was unable to verify Rivera's claims for approximately two more weeks. After verification was made, Rivera was released. The court also issued Rivera a new judicial release form, added Rivera's photograph and fingerprints to the case file, and reissued the warrant with the true subject's middle name.
In 2010 Rivera sued Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, San Bernardino County, and the San Bernardino County's Sheriff's Department for violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments, violation of the Bane Act, and common law false imprisonment. The district court granted the Counties' motions for summary judgment and dismissed the plaintiff's claims. Rivera then timely appealed.

Rivera claimed that Los Angeles County violated the Fourth amendment by issuing the 1989 warrant without sufficient particularity. The panel observed that prior decisions held that warrants lacking the suspect's name but containing a physical description, or warrants containing only the suspect's name, satisfied the particularity requirement. Since the warrant here contained both the suspect's name and a physical description, the panel ruled that the 1989 warrant satisfied the particularity requirement.

Furthermore, the panel held that even were the warrant lacking the particularity requirement, the municipalities would only be liable if Rivera proved that they had a policy or custom of failing to include more detailed information in their warrants. While Los Angeles County did have a policy of including an entry that identified anyone mistakenly arrested on the warrant, the panel ruled that a single failure to follow this policy was insufficient for liability.

Rivera also claimed that the San Bernardino Sheriff's deputies violated the Fourth amendment in arresting him. However, the panel ruled that the deputies had probable cause to arrest him based on a good faith, reasonable belief that Rivera was the subject of the warrant. Not only did the name and date of birth in the warrant match Rivera's exactly, but his physical appearance also closely resembled that described in the warrant. The panel also held that the officers were reasonable in being wary of Rivera's bald claim of judicial clearance.

To support his Due Process claim, challenging his detainment after arrest, Rivera relied on a prior Ninth Circuit decision. However, the panel distinguished the facts of the current case from the case cited by Rivera which involved repeated claims of innocence, a different name in the warrant, substantial differences in weight between the warrant and the plaintiff, and no appearances before a judge. Instead, the Court explained that Due Process cases fit into at least one of two categories: either the circumstances indicated to the State that further investigation was warranted or the State denied the plaintiff access to the courts for an extended period of time.

However, all of the "further investigation" cases involved significant differences between the arrestee and the true suspect; something that was plainly lacking in under the present facts. Furthermore, the same facts that made Rivera's arrest reasonable also support the conclusion that the Counties had no reason to believe that further investigation was required. Similarly, the "denied access" cases involved significant periods of deprivation; whereas here Rivera was in court the day after his arrest. The Court also explained that once Rivera's first court appearance took place that Rivera was then being "'held in custody pursuant to a court order'" and case law holds that, once this occurs, county officials are not required by the Due Process Clause to investigate whether the court order is proper.

As for Rivera's common law claim of false imprisonment and his California claim of a Bane Act violation, the Court examined two types of immunity. The first provides that an officer is not liable for arrests made if the officer acts without malice and in the reasonable belief that the person arrested is the one referred to in the warrant. The second is that an officer is not liable for false arrest if the officer had reasonable cause to believe the arrest was lawful. Citing Lopez v. City of Oxnard, 207 Cal. App. 3d 1, 4 (Ct.App. 1989), a case where the plaintiff repeatedly brought his judicial innocence sheet to the arresting officer's attention, the court held that the arresting officer was nevertheless immune from liability because "there is no factual question whether the officer had a reasonable belief that Lopez was the person named in the warrant." Relying on Lopez, the Ninth Circuit panel held that the individual employees would be able to invoke statutory immunity to avoid liability and that as such the Counties could do so as well; therefore, the district court's grant of summary judgment based on statutory immunities was correct.

For the aforementioned reasons, the Court affirmed the district court's dismissal of all of Rivera's claims.

Judge Paez concurred in part and dissented in part. Concurring that the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims should be dismissed, along with the state law claims, Judge Paez disagreed with the majority's analysis of the Due Process claim. Judge Paez believed that Rivera raised a genuine issue of material fact whether Los Angeles County deprived Rivera of liberty without due process of law by its failure to investigate his claims of innocence, stating that "[t]he touchstone is simply whether the jailer should have known, despite the existence of probable cause at the time of arrest, that a detainee was entitled to be released. This is inherently a fact-intensive, circumstance-specific inquiry."

Panel: Judges O'Scannlain, Paez, and Ikuta

Date of Issued Opinion: March 12, 2014

Docket Number: 2:10-cv-01861-PSG-DTB

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Seth DuMouchel

Author of Opinion: Judge O'Scannlain

Author of Dissent: Judge Paez

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: P

    Posted By: Glenn Koppel @ 04/01/2014 05:28 PM     9th Circuit  

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