Category Archives: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

No Motion to Suppress?

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In Mahrt v. Beard, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a defendant may bring a pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel claim when counsel’s failure to argue a motion to suppress the fruits of a search prevents the defendant from making an informed choice whether to plead guilty.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On September 3, 2012, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a residence in Petaluma, California. A neighbor had reported that a male and female subject were arguing over a gun. The Defendant Gregory Mahrt was living in a garage on the property that had been converted into a room. As the deputies approached the property, Mahrt walked out and met them at the front gate. The deputies detained Mahrt and asked about the argument, the gun and whether anyone else was inside the residence.

Mr. Mahrt was “uncooperative.” The deputies conducted a “protective sweep” of Mahrt’s room in the garage. As the deputies approached the garage, Mahrt began yelling that he did not want the officers to enter his room. According to the report, the deputies observed ammunition cans, ammunition, and what appeared to be an AR-15 Rifle (later determined to be a replica).

The deputies subsequently learned that Mahrt had a prior felony conviction and arrested him for being a felon in possession of ammunition. The deputies then asked Mahrt for permission to search his room.

This is where the facts differ: according to police reports, Mr. Mahrt consented. The deputies conducted a second search of the room. They found additional ammunition, rifle magazines, and two firearms. According to Mahrt, however, he did not consent to the search.

On September 5, 2012, the State of California charged Mahrt with having been a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition in violation of California Penal Code § 29800(a)(1) and § 30305(a)(1). Mahrt believed that the warrantless search (or searches) of the garage was (or were) illegal. However, neither of the two public defenders who represented him at the trial court level moved to suppress the firearms and ammunition recovered from his room.

Nevertheless, despite his defense counsel’s failure to move to suppress, Mahrt pleaded guilty to both charges and received a six-year sentence. He appealed. On appeal, Mahrt’s appointed counsel did not raise any issues. Instead, his counsel filed a Wende brief, the California analogue to an Anders brief. A Wende brief is filed when a California appellate attorney concludes that an appeal would be frivolous.  On November 27, 2013, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Mahrt’s conviction.

On April 11, 2014, Mahrt filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The petition alleged that Mahrt’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by his trial counsels’ failure to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition found in his room. A magistrate judge, sitting by consent, granted Mahrt’s petition. The State timely appealed.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

  1. The Defendant May Proceed With a Pre-Plea Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim.

The 9th Circuit  reasoned that Mahrt’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, premised upon a failure to file a motion to suppress, is squarely within this line of case discussing pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to file a motion to suppress:

“The State’s entire case against Mahrt depended on its ability to introduce into evidence the firearms and ammunition found in his room. If the deputies unconstitutionally searched Mahrt’s home, counsel’s failure to move to suppress the fruits of that search prevented Mahrt from making the informed choice to which he was entitled.”

    2. Mahrt’s Counsel Was Ineffective.

The Court held that Mahrt’s counsel was ineffective in failing to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition. It reasoned that there was at least a chance that such a motion would have succeeded. First, there was a clear conflict in the available evidence. Second, a police officer’s report mischaracterized the first search as a “protective sweep.”

The Court reasoned that a warrantless protective search is permitted under Maryland v. Buie, based on the “interest of the officers in taking steps to assure themselves that the house in which a suspect is being, or has just been, arrested is not harboring other persons who are dangerous and who could unexpectedly launch an attack.” Here, Mahrt was being detained by the deputies, and they had no reason to suspect that there was some other person inside the residence who could pose a danger to themselves or to others. Consequently, the Court reasoned that defense counsel should have filed and argued a motion to suppress the search of Maert’s premises.

My opinion? It’s very importnant to retain qualified defense counsel in search and seizure cases such as this. Here, the defendant accepted a plea bargain on the advice of defense counsel who, according to the court, failed to argue motions to suppress. Pretrial motions are essential. It’s imperative to hire defense counsel who know the law and argue it effectively. Contact my office if you, a friend or family matter face criminal charges where a search was involved.

Brady v. Maryland to the Rescue

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In United States v. Yepiz, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the convictions for numerous defendants so that it may engage in the necessary fact-finding to ascertain whether a government’s witness received benefits that were undisclosed to the defendants at the time of trial.

The defendants are all alleged to be members or associates of the Vineland Boys (“VBS”), a gang located in Southern California. On November 30, 2005, a grand jury returned a 78-count first superseding indictment charging appellants and approximately forty other individuals with crimes arising out of their membership or association with VBS.

Seven of the nine defendants were charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), and with RICO conspiracy, and all appellants were charged with federal distribution of narcotics. Other charged counts included violent crimes in aid of racketeering (“VICAR”), attempted murder, and possession with intent to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

Trial commenced on August 9, 2006. On October 26, 2008, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty as to five counts, a mistrial as to one count, and a verdict of guilty as to the remaining counts. The defendants timely appealed their convictions and sentences. This case was vigorously litigated over the course of two-and-a-half months. It presented the federal district court with a gauntlet of complex legal questions, and required it to grapple with unique concerns to courtroom safety and logistics.

At trial, one of the government’s cooperating witnesses was Victor Bulgarian. In September of 2006, on direct examination, Bulgarian testified that he was previously arrested for possession and sale of methamphetamine in an unrelated case, and agreed to cooperate with law enforcement in exchange for a lesser sentence, and a grant of immunity for his testimony as a government witness.

Bulgarian testified to having received no benefits from the government in exchange for his testimony. However, on cross-examination, Bulgarian testified to having received $5,000 in cash from the government after he testified to the grand jury in this case. Defendants noted that this testimony directly contravened a letter the government sent to them asserting that no witnesses received any benefits from the government in exchange for their testimony. The government acknowledged that it was “a glaring mistake,” but argued that the error was cured because defendants had ample opportunity to cross examine Bulgarian on the subject of the $5,000 payment. Defendants did not raise the issue again either at trial or in a post-trial motion.

Approximately three years later, on August 20, 2009, Bulgarian testified in the trial of defendant Horacio Yepiz. On direct examination, Bulgarian once again testified to having received no benefit from the government in return for his testimony. On cross examination, however, Bulgarian testified that since his arrest for drug-related crimes in 2004, he had received roughly $100,000 to $200,000 in cash from five different law enforcement agencies, although he was unable to give an exact figure. He explained that he was able to solicit paid work from these agencies whenever he wanted (“I decide when I want to work, and when I work, I get paid.”). Indeed, he testified to having received $800 for three hours of work the week prior.

Appellants now argue that the government violated Brady v. Maryland by failing to disclose the full extent of the benefits Bulgarian received at trial. For those who don’t know, Brady v. Maryland was a landmark United States Supreme Court case that established that the prosecution must turn over all evidence that might exonerate the defendant (exculpatory evidence) to the defense.

On Appeal, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that, under Brady, the suppression by the prosecution of evidence favorable to an accused upon request violates due process where the evidence is material either to guilt or to punishment, irrespective of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution.

The Ninth Circuit further reasoned that in order to prevail on a Brady claim, the defendant must show that the evidence was material. Materiality is satisfied when “there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A ‘reasonable probability’ is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.”

Here, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government’s attempts to minimize the significance of Bulgarian’s testimony are not persuasive in light of the record:

“While some of Bulgarian’s testimony was independently corroborated, it nonetheless played a substantial role in the government’s case-in-chief. In particular, Bulgarian’s testimony was relied upon heavily by the government to show that VBS was a ‘criminal enterprise’ under RICO. Therefore, had the alleged Brady materials been made available to appellants at trial, there is a “reasonable probability” that the result of the proceeding would have been altered.”

With that, and In light of the disputed facts surrounding defendants’ Brady claim, the Ninth Circuit remanded the convictions to the district court so that it may engage in the necessary fact-finding to ascertain whether Mr. Bulgarian received benefits that were undisclosed to appellants at the time of trial, and if so, whether Brady was violated as to each convicted count.

My opinion? Good decision. Since Brady was decided in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court has required that prosecutors and police officers disclose evidence that impeaches the credibility of any state witness, including police officers. Examples of impeachment evidence include false testimony, misrepresentations made in court documents, false information in police reports and internal police disciplinary proceedings.

Unfortunately, that is not being done.  There is no uniform system compiling Brady data; each county’s prosecuting attorney has different methods for assembling Brady information and different perspectives on when disclosure is constitutionally required. Naturally, this creates problems for defense counsel seeking exculpatory information from prosecutors and law enforcement agencies. Fortunately, competent defense counsel has ways of overcoming these challenges, as demonstrated by the excellent representation given to the defendants in this case.

Deadly Force Not Justified.

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In A.K.H. v. City of Tustin, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held the government could not justify a police officer’s use of deadly force during the officer’s attempted investigatory stop of Mr. Herrera.

FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY.

Defendant Osvaldo Villarreal, a police officer in Tustin, California, fatally shot Benny Herrera during an attempted investigatory stop. Herrera was on foot. Officer Villarreal was in his patrol car and had just driven up beside Herrera. Herrera was in the middle of the roadway, moving in the direction of traffic. His left hand was free and visible; his right hand was in his sweatshirt pocket. Villarreal commanded Herrera to take his hand out of his pocket. Less than a second later, just as Herrera’s hand came out of his pocket, Villarreal shot him twice, killing him. Herrera was unarmed. Villarreal does not claim that he saw, or thought he saw, a weapon in Herrera’s hand.

Relatives of Herrera (“Plaintiffs”) filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Officer Villarreal and the City of Tustin alleging that Villarreal used excessive force against Herrera in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Villarreal moved for summary judgment based on qualified immunity, which would have effectively dismissed the lawsuit against him. However, the federal district court denied the Officer’s motion.

Officer Villarreal brought an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He argued that, even viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, his actions did not violate the Fourth Amendment and that the district court therefore erred in denying him qualified immunity.

THE ISSUES.

The Ninth Circuit reasoned it must ask two questions to determine whether Officer Villarreal is entitled to summary judgment based on qualified immunity. First, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, did Villarreal use excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment? Second, if Villarreal used excessive force, did he violate a clearly established right?

THE COURT’S ANALYSIS.

Quoting Tennessee v. Garner, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that Deadly Force is permissible only if the suspect threatens the officer with a weapon or there is probable cause to believe that he has committed a crime involving the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm.

Here, the Ninth Circuit found Officer Herrera used excessive force in violation of Mr. Herrera’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Court reasoned that (1) the crime at issue was a domestic dispute that had ended before the police became involved; (2) the deceased did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others, as the officer did not believe the deceased was armed and the officer did not see a weapon; (3) although the deceased did not comply with the officer’s commands to remove his hand from his sweatshirt pocket, he did not attempt to flee; and (4) the officer escalated to deadly force approximately 1 second after issuing the command to the deceased to remove his hand from his pocket. “Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, we conclude that Villarreal violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law when he shot and killed Herrera.”

CONCLUSION.

In its conclusion, the Ninth Circuit said the following:

“It has long been clear that a police officer may not seize an unarmed, non-dangerous suspect by shooting him dead. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, that is precisely what Officer Villarreal did here.”

My opinion? Great decision. Straightforward, direct, constitutionally sound and accurate. I’m happy the Ninth Circuit saw this case for what it was.

“Voodoo Science” Debunked

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Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal written Alex Kozinski , a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals since 1985, discusses how the U.S. has relied on flawed forensic evidence techniques for decades, resulting in false convictions.

According to Judge Kozinski, the White House released a report that fundamentally changes the way many criminal trials are conducted. The new study from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) examines the scientific validity of forensic-evidence techniques—DNA, fingerprint, bitemark, firearm, footwear and hair analysis. It concludes that virtually all of these methods are flawed, some irredeemably so.

The study indicates that only the most basic form of DNA analysis is scientifically reliable. Some forensic methods have significant error rates and others are rank guesswork. “The prospects of developing bitemark analysis into a scientifically valid method” are low, according to the report. In plain terms, says Judge Kozinski, “Bitemark analysis is about as reliable as astrology.” Yet many unfortunate defendants languish in prison based on bad science.

Even more disturbing, the article states that forensic scientists – who are often members of the prosecution team – sometimes see their job as helping to get a conviction. This can lead them to fabricate evidence or commit perjury, says Judge Kozinski. Many forensic examiners are poorly trained and supervised. They sometimes overstate the strength of their conclusions by claiming that the risk of error is “vanishingly small,” “essentially zero,” or “microscopic.” The report calls such claims “scientifically indefensible,” but jurors generally take them as gospel when presented by government witnesses who are certified as scientific experts.

Apparently, problems with forensic evidence have plagued the criminal-justice system for years.

The PCAST report recommends developing standards for validating forensic methods, training forensic examiners and making forensic labs independent of police and prosecutors. “All should be swiftly implemented,” says Judge Kozinski, who adds that preventing the incarceration and execution of innocent persons is as good a use of tax dollars as any:

“Among the more than 2.2 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails, countless may have been convicted using unreliable or fabricated forensic science. The U.S. has an abiding and unfulfilled moral obligation to free citizens who were imprisoned by such questionable means. If your son or daughter, sibling or cousin, best friend or spouse, was the victim of voodoo science, you would expect no less.”

My opinion? Jurors rely HEAVILY on forensic evidence in their deliberations. And it makes sense: it’s a huge task to weigh evidence and sift through the rhetoric of arguments from the prosecution and defense. Cold, hard, quantifiable and scientific facts make it easy for jurors to render decisions.

Consequently, the information from this report is both good and bad news. It’s good because the truth about  “voodoo science” in the courtroom has finally surfaced to the mainstream. It’s bad because hundreds, if not thousands of innocent people are convicted of crimes and serve years in prison based on unreliable evidence for crimes they didn’t commit.

Fortunately, there’s hope. According to Judge Kozinski, the report “provides a road map for defense lawyers to challenge prosecution experts.” Excellent.

Competent attorneys should immediately gain an understanding of challenging prosecution experts who bring voodoo science in the courtroom. It’s the only way to shed light on this grim subject and bring justice to our courts.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Bans Pot Prosecutions

In U.S. v. McIntosh, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals banned the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from prosecuting medical marijuana cases if no state laws were broken.

U.S v. McIntosh consolidated 10 pending cases in Washington in California where defendants who sold medical marijuana were indicted for violating the Controlled Substance Act. The defendants sought dismissal of their charges or to enjoin their prosecutions under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which prohibits the DOJ from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their medical marijuana laws.

Although marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Congress has barred the Justice Department from spending money to prevent states from regulating the use or sale of medical pot.

Federal prosecutors argued unsuccessfully that Congress meant only to bar the department from taking legal action against states and that it could still prosecute individuals who violate federal marijuana laws. The court rejected that, saying that medical marijuana-based prosecutions prevent the states from giving full effect to their own measures Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain wrote the following in his opinion:

“DOJ, without taking any legal action against the Medical Marijuana States, prevents them from implementing their laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana by prosecuting individuals for use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana that is authorized by such laws . . . If the federal government prosecutes such individuals, it has prevented the state from giving practical effect to its law providing for non-prosecution of individuals who engage in the permitted conduct.”

“If DOJ wishes to continue these prosecutions, Appellants are entitled to evidentiary hearings to determine whether their conduct was completely authorized by state law, by which we mean that they strictly complied with all relevant conditions imposed by state law on the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of medical marijuana.”

With that, the Court of Appeals remanded the case back with instructions to conduct evidentiary hearings to determine whether Appellants complied with state law.

Marijuana activists and lawyers representing medical pot suppliers say the ruling is a significant addition to the growing support for broad legalization of the drug.

“This is the beginning of the end of federal prosecutions of state medical marijuana dispensary operators, growers and patients,” said Marc Zilversmit, an attorney representing five people who operate four marijuana stores in Los Angeles and nine indoor growing sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

My opinion? Good decision. These days, marijuana is legal for medicinal or recreational use in 25 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, ten states have marijuana legalization measures on the November ballot. This case is a positive shift toward legalizing marijuana on a federal level.

Frisks & DV Investigations

 

In Thomas v. Dillard, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that although the domestic violence (DV) nature of a police investigation is relevant in assessing whether a suspect is armed and dangerous, it is not alone sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion to search.

Palomar College Police Officer Christopher Dillard responded to a call to investigate a man pushing a woman in a public area on the college’s campus. There he found Correll Thomas, a student at the college who had been hanging out with and kissing his girlfriend, Amy Husky. Although Thomas was unarmed and in fact had committed no act of domestic violence, Dillard demanded Thomas submit to a search for weapons, believing police officers are free to conduct a Terry frisk whenever they are investigating a potential “domestic violence” incident, regardless of the specific circumstances of the call or the facts encountered at the scene. When Thomas refused to be searched, Dillard tased him. Thomas sued Dillard under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting unlawful seizure and excessive force under the Fourth Amendment.

The 9th Circuit held that although the domestic violence nature of a police investigation is a relevant consideration in assessing whether there is reason to believe a suspect is armed and dangerous, it is not alone sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion:

“Because domestic violence encompasses too many criminal acts of varying degrees of seriousness for an officer to form reasonable suspicion a suspect is armed from that label alone, we hold domestic violence is not a crime such as bank robbery or trafficking in large quantities of drugs that is, as a general matter, likely to involve the use of weapons.”

Therefore, officer Dillard violated plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure by detaining him for the purpose of performing a Terry frisk.

However, the 9th Circuit held that Dillard was entitled to protection from the lawsuit under qualified immunity because it was not clearly established at the time that the initial demand for a frisk was unlawful. The court further held that it was not clearly established at the time that continuing to detain a noncompliant domestic violence suspect for the purpose of executing a frisk and tasing him when he refused to comply were unlawful.

My opinion? On the one hand, it’s refreshing that the Court understood the 4th Amendment issues presented in this case. Forcing a Terry search is unlawful under these circumstances. However, I disagree with the court that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity.

Police Dog “Bite & Hold”

In Lowry v. City of San Diego, the Ninth Circuit held that City of San Diego’s policy of training its police dogs to “bite and hold” individuals resulted in a violation of plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights.

After a night of drinking with her friends, Sara Lowry returned to her workplace and fell asleep on her office couch. She awoke a short while later and went to the bathroom, before returning to her couch and going back to sleep. Unfortunately for Lowry, during her trip to the bathroom, she accidentally triggered the building’s burglar alarm. Several officers from the San Diego Police Department (“SDPD”) responded, accompanied by a police service dog named Bak. After searching the area and giving several warnings, the officers released Bak into Lowry’s office. Bak found Lowry and pounced on her, tearing open her upper lip.

Lowry filed suit against the City of San Diego (the “City”) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the City’s policy of training its police dogs to “bite and hold” individuals resulted in a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. The district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, concluding both that Lowry did not suffer constitutional harm and that, even if she did, the City was not liable for her injuries.

The Ninth Circuit decided that a reasonable jury could find that the police officers responding to the alarm used excessive force when they deliberately unleashed a police dog that they knew might well “rip the face off” any individual who might be present in the office. They also decided that the force used was excessive and that the City was liable.

The Court reasoned that the SDPD trains its police dogs to enter a building, find a person, bite them, and hold that bite until a police officer arrives and removes the dog. However, police dogs are not trained to differentiate between “a young child asleep or . . . a burglar standing in the kitchen with a butcher knife,” and will simply bite the first person they find.

Generally, the decision of whether to conduct a canine search on or off its leash is left to the officer’s discretion. However, the SDPD’s Canine Unit Operations Manual provides that residential searches “should normally be conducted on-lead unless the handler can reasonably determine there are no residents or animals in the home.”

The Court further reasoned that objectively unreasonable uses of force violate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable seizures. Our excessive force analysis under Graham v. Connor involves three steps. First, we must assess the severity of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment rights by evaluating the type and amount of force inflicted. Second, we evaluate the government’s interest in the use of force. Finally, we balance the gravity of the intrusion on the individual against the government’s need for that intrusion.

Here, under these circumstances, the Ninth Circuit found that a reasonable juror could conclude that releasing Bak into the suite posed a high risk of severe harm to any individual present.  Additionally, the officers would not have been justified in believing that Lowry posed a threat to their safety or to others. Throughout the entire encounter, until she was bitten by Bak, Lowry remained fast asleep on the couch. Lowry did not engage in any threatening behavior, nor do anything other than lie quietly before she was bit in the face. Finally, a non-residential burglary is not an inherently dangerous crime, and the fact that an unarmed suspect has broken into a dwelling at night does not automatically mean she is physically dangerous.

Given that there is no dispute that the City’s “bite and hold policy” was the moving force behind Lowry’s constitutional injuries, the City was not entitled to dismissal under summary judgment. With that, the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded this case for further proceedings.

Good decision.

Wrongful Incarceration

In Garcia v. County of Riverside, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that an individual’s lawsuit against police may proceed when the jail did not engage in readily available identity checks to ensure that they were not detaining the wrong person.

Plaintiff was arrested for DUI in Riverside County, California, on November 26, 2012. He was booked in a Riverside County jail. A booked individual is electronically fingerprinted through a system called “Livescan.” The Livescan image is then sent to the California Department of Justice.

When Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) officers searched for Plaintiff “Mario Garcia,” they found a felony warrant for Mario L. Garcia issued by the Los Angeles Superior Court in 1994. The warrant described Mario L. Garcia using only his first and last name, date of birth, height, and weight. The first and last name and birth date matched Plaintiff’s own. However, the authorities did not forward information on Mario L. Garcia’s biometric identifiers, middle name, or criminal record, all of which were different from Plaintiff’s.

AS a result, RCSD matched Plaintiff to the warrant and told him that he would be detained, despite Plaintiff’s protests that he was not Mario L. Garcia and that he had been mistakenly detained before based on the same warrant.

The next day Plaintiff was transferred to an LA County jail, where he alleges that he repeated his complaints to LASD officers. Plaintiff contends that LASD knew or should have known that he was not Mario L. Garcia for several reasons: (1) their middle names do not match; (2) their height and weight differ considerably (Mario L. Garcia is listed as 5’1″, 130 lbs. Plaintiff is 5’10”, 170 lbs.); (3) Plaintiff’s biometric identifiers, including fingerprints and CII number, did not match the subject’s; and (4) Plaintiff’s criminal history, which was linked in the system to his fingerprints, did not match the subject’s.

Plaintiff sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of the Fourth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment by LASD, LA County, and several other defendants. He also brought state-law claims against LASD and LA County. He claimed that it is the policy of LASD to ignore identification processes, to ignore prisoners’ complaints of misidentification, and to accept an outside agency’s determination that an arrestee is the subject of a warrant rather than conduct an independent identity check upon booking in LA County.

The LASD and LA County’s defense was “Qualified Immunity.”

For those who don’t know, “Qualified Immunity” protects government officials from lawsuits alleging that they violated plaintiffs’ rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right. When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights. Courts conducting this analysis apply the law that was in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.

The “Qualified immunity balances two important interests—the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.”

Here, the 9th Circuit decided that law enforcement’s failed to investigate his claim of mistaken identity after he was arrested. There was an obvious physical discrepancy between the warrant subject and Mr. Garcia, the most obvious which consisted of a nine-inch difference in height. That, accompanied by a detainee’s complaints of misidentification, should prompt officers to engage in readily available and resource-efficient identity checks, such as a fingerprint comparison, to ensure that they are not detaining the wrong person.

My opinion? Excellent decision. Civil rights violations do not always involve incidents of police shootings or beatings. Wrongful incarceration is covered, too. I’m happy the 9th Circuit understands this.