“The Cops Beat the Crap Out of Me” and Preclusion of Civil Suits by Criminal Guilty Pleas

Byrd v. Phoenix Police Dep’t, No. 16-16152, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6575 (9th Cir., March 16, 2018).

This case teaches two things: 1) pleading guilty to a drug crime does not preclude an excessive-force civil suit; and 2) alleging that “the cops beat the crap out of me ” states a cognizable cause of action.

First, the fun part. Plaintiff Byrd appealed the dismissal of his § 1983 claim. He alleged that police stopped him, searched him, and then “beat the crap out of him. ” Id. at *3. The district court dismissed the complaint, reasoning that this language was “too vague and conclusory ” to support a claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that this “use of a colloquial, shorthand phrase makes plain that Byrd is alleging that the officers’ use of force was unreasonably excessive. ” It observed that “this conclusion is reinforced by his allegations about the resulting injuries. ” Id. at *8. Bottom line: “the cops beat the crap out of me” is a perfectly apt legal description for excessive force.

But perhaps even more importantly for us criminal practitioners, the opinion also addressed the extent to which civil claims survive criminal guilty pleas, known as the Heck doctrine. See Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994). Heck held that § 1983 civil claims are precluded by an earlier criminal conviction if “a judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence.” 512 U.S. at 487. But here, because the excessive force claim would not invalidate his guilty plea to drug possession, the Court held that the claims were not Heck-barred. It distinguished cases where the convictions, often possession crimes, were challenged as fruit of an illegal search. *12-13. The point for criminal practitioners is that clients who are interested in suing can still have their day in (civil) court, depending on how the criminal case is resolved.

Police drawing gun on unarmed, compliant suspect is excessive force under the Fourth Amendment

Thompson v. Rahr, No. 16-35301, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6191 (9th Cir. Mar. 13, 2018)

Plaintiff alleged that during a traffic stop, an officer pointed a gun at his head and threatened to kill him. Plaintiff was compliant and unarmed, though a firearm had been discovered in the car earlier. The Ninth Circuit held that under § 1983, “pointing a loaded gun at the suspect’s head in these circumstances constitutes excessive force under the Fourth Amendment,” but it held that qualified immunity protected the officers, as “th[is] law was not clearly established at the time of the traffic stop. ” The Court distinguished prior cases holding that pointing a weapon at unarmed suspects constituted excessive force (Robinson v. Solano Cty., 278 F.3d 1007 (9th Cir. 2002) (en banc), and Hopkins v. Bonvicino, 573 F.3d 752 (9th Cir. 2009)) because “neither of those cases involved a felony traffic stop with a firearm in proximity, nor did they feature facts sufficiently similar to the pattern we address here to put the constitutional question beyond debate as required to defeat qualified immunity. ” Id. *13 (emphasis in original). The fact remains that pointing loaded weapons at compliant suspects is excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.

Unconstitutional CPS action and “judicial deception”

Keates v. Koile, No.16-16568 (9th Cir., March 6, 2018)

Another case regarding removal of children from the home without a warrant or emergency. I include these cases because, sadly, it is an issue that can affect many of our clients – and because of the discussion of “judicial deception” described below.

The Court affirmed that “[o]ur cases hold that the Fourteenth, First, and Fourth Amendments provide a guarantee that parents will not be separated from their children without due process of law except in emergencies.” Id. at 14. An official “cannot seize children suspected of being abused or neglected unless reasonable avenues of investigation are first pursued. ” Id. at 15. Here, CPS had taken a teenage girl from her mother at the hospital, after the girl had reported vague thoughts of suicide in the past and the mother was somewhat uncooperative at the hospital. Because there was no threat of imminent harm, no reasonable investigation, and no court order, plaintiffs stated a claim for violation of their constitutional rights.

The opinion also contains a helpful discussion of the doctrine of “judicial deception.” In order to prevail on a judicial-deception claim, a plaintiff must prove that “(1) the defendant official deliberately fabricated evidence and (2) the deliberate fabrication caused the plaintiff’s deprivation of liberty. ” Spencer v. Peters, 857 F.3d 789, 798 (9th Cir. 2017). If a state official “submitted an affidavit that contained statements he knew to be false or would have known were false had he not recklessly disregarded the truth, . . . he cannot be said to have acted in a reasonable manner, and the shield of qualified immunity is lost. ” Chism v. Washington State, 661 F.3d 380, 393 (9th Cir. 2011). Though the plaintiff did not prevail on that claim here, it is worth bearing in mind that when our criminal defendants are victims of “judicial deception,” they have a cause of action under Ninth Circuit law. Food for thought for those cases when an overzealous affiant misstates facts in an arrest or search warrant.

Civil commitment cannot be tantamount to criminal punishment

King v. Cty. of L.A., No. 14-55320, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 6045, (9th Cir. Mar. 12, 2018).

The panel held that under § 1983, Plaintiff’s incarceration at the Los Angeles County jail for almost eight years as a civil detainee stated a claim for violation of Substantive Due Process. It noted that under the law, civil-commitment defendants cannot be subjected to conditions that amount to punishment. Here, the confinement was virtually indistinguishable from criminal pre-trial confinement, and was not less restrictive than necessary. It also held that the Sheriff could be sued in his official capacity but not individually, because “the record did not establish that Sheriff Baca supervised the day-to-day operations of the correctional facility, that he was personally involved in any constitutional deprivation plaintiff may have suffered, or the requisite causal connection for liability in his individual capacity.”

McKenzie Scott PC: We Fight for the Little Guy (through fearless trial advocacy, aggressive motions practice, and unwavering client loyalty – that’s how we win).