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Piccuta Law Group Defeats Two Defense Motions Asking Court to End Police Excessive Force Case
Less than three weeks ago, the Piccuta Law Group scored a victory in a police excessive force case. The civil rights case was filed in federal court against a sheriff deputy and a restaurant who employed the deputy “off-duty” to perform private security. The case claims that the deputy used excessive force by slamming the client’s head face first into the ground.
The Court ruled that the County and deputy were wrong and that you may not slam unresisting suspects to the ground for no reason.
The firm brought several claims against the defendants including claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of the client’s Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, that the client’s right to be free from the use of excessive force by law enforcement was violated. The motions that the firm defeated asked the court to end the case. The firm beat two separate motions. One filed on behalf of the sheriff deputy and the other filed on behalf of the restaurant. The deputy is represented by counsel for the County and the restaurant is represented by a private law firm hired by the restaurant’s insurance company.
The two motions, that the firm defeated, were both for summary judgment. A motion for summary judgment may be brought in a federal case pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the party brining it must show that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that judgment should be entered in favor of the moving party accordingly. Stated another way, there is no need for a jury or court to decide a factual dispute and based upon the undisputed facts the party bringing the motion should win the case as a matter of law.
How Summary Judgment Motions Are Used in a Police Excessive Force Case
Motions for summary judgment are brought all the time by defendants in police brutality or civil rights cases involving excessive force. The defendants use these motions in an effort to reduce the claims that are headed to trial or to end the case entirely. It is the ultimate goal of the defendant who brings such a motion to end the case.
Often times, if not skillfully defended, defendants can prevail on these motions. If a defendant prevails on a motion for summary judgment, it can have devastating consequences. The case will be over and the client or injured Plaintiff will receive nothing for his or her injuries. This is especially troubling since these motions are usually filed late in a case after all the fact-finding for each side has been completed. It is not unusual for these motions to be brought after a case has been pending for over a year or more and after both the attorneys and clients are fully invested in the outcome.
Asserting Civil Rights Claims Against Police Officers Through 42 U.S.C. § 1983
42 U.S.C. § 1983 is a federal code section that permits an individual to sue local government entities, departments, agencies, employees and agents for a violation of his or her rights arising under the United States Constitution and Amendments thereto. This law is the primary way to sue local law enforcement for any such violations. For example, this allows a California resident to sue city police departments, local police, California Highway Patrol Officers, county sheriff deputies, probation officers and other city, county or state officials for any such violations. This includes the following violations:
- First Amendment (right to be free from retaliation for using protected or free speech)
- Fourth Amendment (right to be free from excessive force, unlawful arrest and unlawful search and seizure)
- Fifth Amendment (right to due process of law)
- Eighth Amendment (right to have officials not act with indifference to serious medical needs of an incarcerated prisoner and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment)
- Fourteenth Amendment (right to equal protection under the law and the right to be free from excessive and unnecessary force of a pre-trial detainee)
When an individual files a lawsuit against a local government agent or employee (including local law enforcement officers), under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the law enforcement officers sued can raise qualified immunity as a defense to that claim. This defense is often raised in police excessive force cases by a motion for summary judgment.
The Use of the Qualified Immunity Defense by Police in Excessive Force Lawsuits
Government actors are entitled to qualified immunity from civil damages unless it can be shown that their actions violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). In simple terms, this means that is must be obvious that the actions violated a known constitutional right or that there is a previous case (case law precedent) holding the same.
Applied to police excessive force claims under 42 U.S.C. §1983, the evaluation is almost always fact driven. The evaluation concentrates on whether or not it would have been known to another police officer that the actions of the offending officer violated a known constitutional right. Simply put, would a reasonable police officer, put in the same situation, have known that the actions committed were unlawful.
If there is a controlling case finding constitutional violations arising out of the exact same or similar fact pattern, then that will establish that a reasonable officer should have known the actions were unlawful. Basically, an officer should know what the law is and the cases that hold what an officer may or may not reasonably do. Indeed, law enforcement officers are frequently provided continuing training on developments in controlling case law which set forth what the new cases are and how those cases affect what an officer may do in the field.
However, having a controlling case with similar or exact facts is not necessary to defeat a defense of qualified immunity. Usually a controlling case is only necessary in a situation where an argument can be made that it was potentially unclear to the officer if his or her actions would violate a constitutional right. Take for example, a situation where an officer pistol whips a motorist on a routine traffic stop for telling the officer he was a lazy pig. There may be no case holding that it is unconstitutional for an officer to use that level of force in retaliation for an individual exercising his free speech. However, it is clearly excessive and any reasonable officer would know that those actions violate an individual’s constitutional right to be free from excessive and unreasonable force. No controlling case stating such is necessary to beat a defense of qualified immunity.
Specifics on the Excessive Force Lawsuit in Which We Recently Prevailed
The case that our firm recently beat the two defense motions in arose from an encounter between our client and an off-duty sheriff deputy. The client was at an entertainment-themed restaurant that had bowling, pool, video games, laser tag, and other games. Our client was allegedly being disruptive while playing laser tag. The restaurant managers decided to throw him out as a result.
The restaurant used a sheriff deputy to perform its private security. The deputy was “off-duty” but worked in full uniform including carrying his service pistol, radio and full duty belt. The deputy was told to throw the client out of the restaurant by upper management who ran the restaurant. In the process, the deputy decided to perform a leg sweep or other take down maneuver. In doing so, he slammed the client head and face first into the hard tile floor. The client was instantly bloodied and a huge gash opened on the client’s forehead and nose.
The lawsuit our firm filed alleges that the deputy gave no warning or commands prior to the takedown. The lawsuit further alleges that the takedown was not justified and that our client did nothing to warrant the extreme use of force, much less resist arrest. The gash the client received required more than twenty stitches to close and left a disfiguring scar. More importantly, the client suffered a head injury and has permanent cognitive defects.
The lawsuit advanced claims against the sheriff deputy for excessive force by a law enforcement officer in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The lawsuit also brought claims against the restaurant for its involvement in the incident and for allowing the wrongful acts to occur. The restaurant was accused of negligently supervising and training the sheriff deputy among other things. Both the deputy and restaurant are represented by different attorneys each of who filed a separate motion for summary judgment.
The motion filed on behalf of the sheriff deputy claimed that he should be granted qualified immunity for his actions. Basically, the deputy argued that “it was not clearly established that a takedown of an unresisting arrestee violated the Fourth Amendment.” The deputy, through the county attorney, took the position that law enforcement officers can slam people to the ground for no reason, even when they are not resisting arrest, because there was no previous case saying they could not.
The Court’s Decision on the Qualified Immunity Defense to the Excessive Force Claim
The Court ruled that the County and deputy were wrong and that you may not slam unresisting suspects to the ground for no reason. The Court did not grant the deputy qualified immunity as he had hoped and as requested in his motion. In reaching its decision, the court focused on two cases.
The first case is entitled Blakenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463 (9th Circuit 2007). In the Blakenhorn case, the Court decided that “gang-tackling without first attempting a less violent means of arresting a relatively calm trespass suspect—especially one who had been cooperative in the past and was at the moment not actively resisting arrest—was a violation of that person’s Fourth Amendment rights.” The court also relied on a case entitled Santos v. Gates, 287 F.3d 846, 853-54 (9th Circuit 2002). In the Santos case, the Court held that police were guilty of using excessive force when they took down a suspect accused of public intoxication that neither fled or resisted arrest. The takedown by officers in the Santos case resulted in a broken back.
The court’s order stated as follow:
“Accepting Plaintiff’s facts as true, it was clearly established that immediately taking to the ground and seriously injuring a suspect who was not resisting or posing a threat, without warning, and without first attempting a less violent means violated clearly established Fourth Amendment Rights. Accordingly, the Court will deny summary judgment to Laterza on the basis of qualified immunity.”
To read a copy of the Court’s order, click the following link.
As a result of the Court’s ruling, the case will continue against the deputy and the restaurant. The client now has the right to present his case to a jury and ask them to make a decision as to who is the telling the truth. A jury will now determine if excessive force was used by the deputy and what amount of monetary compensation the client should receive as a result. As to the restaurant, the client can present his claims that the restaurant is responsible for the assault and battery committed by the deputy in his scope of employment for the restaurant.
However, before the case proceeds to trial, the parties will participate in a settlement conference. The settlement conference will be conducted by a federal court judge. The settlement conference is set for May 20, 2019. If the defendants refuse to take responsibility for their actions or refuse to pay fair compensation for the injuries suffered by the firm’s client, the firm will prepare to take the case to trial. Our firm will “take the case to the box” and seek justice for our injured client from a jury.
Contact One of Our Monterey Civil Rights Attorneys to Discuss Your Excessive Force Case
If you or a loved one has experienced police excessive force or any other violation of your civil rights by law enforcement, contact the Piccuta Law Group today. We handle and win civil rights cases involving: police brutality, false arrest, wrongful search and seizure, excessive force, First Amendment retaliation, wrongful tasering, wrongful police shooting, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, excessive use of K-9 or police dog, among other claims. One of our experienced civil rights attorneys is available now to discuss your potential case and provide a consultation at no charge.
About the author: The content on this page was written by Monterey civil rights lawyer and personal injury attorney Charles “Tony” Piccuta. Piccuta graduated with honors from Indiana University-Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana (Ranked Top 35 US News & World Report 2018). Piccuta took and passed the State bars of Arizona, California, Illinois and Nevada (all on the first try). He actively practices throughout California and Arizona. He is a winning trial attorney that regularly handles serious personal injury cases and civil rights lawsuits. He has obtained six and seven figure verdicts in both state and federal court. He has been recognized by Super Lawyers for six years straight. He is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, American Association for Justice, National Police Accountability Project, Arizona Association of Justice, Maricopa County Bar Association and Scottsdale Bar Association, among other organizations.
Disclaimer: The information on this web site is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Reading and relying upon the content on this page does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, you should contact our law firm for a free consultation and to discuss your specific case and issues.