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Redefining Qualified Immunity for Police in the State of California, Court Rules

Posted by Sara Cooper | Aug 29, 2023 | 0 Comments

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In June, The California Supreme Court had reestablished the limits of law enforcement immunity under state law that would make officers immune from lawsuits regarding harm enacted onto civilians while on duty.

Through an unanimous decision, the state's top court rejected the argument by Riverside County that its sheriff deputies couldn't be held liable for the emotional distress of the wife of a man who had been left lying in plain sight with his genitals exposed for almost eight hours after he had been fatally shot, according to Courthouse News Service.

The California Government Claim Act was a specific legislation that the county had depended on, where two courts, trial and court of appeals, had exempted the deputies from liability as their reasonings were for poor prosecution and not being able to cover the complete police conduct legal, such as investigating a crime.

"While other provisions of the Government Claims Act may confer immunity for certain investigatory actions, section 821.6 does not broadly immunize police officers or other public employees for any and all harmful actions they may take in the course of investigating crime," Associate Justice Leondra Kruger wrote in reversing the lower courts' decisions.

These limits have been defined since 1974 by the highest state court, including with state appellate courts had relied on expanded interpretations of the section to dismisses misconduct lawsuits that were not in relation to actual prosecutions.

Decisions have not caused any new litigation due to other defenses having the ability to win claims against police misconduct, said Richard Antognini, the attorney for Dora Leon who argued the case before California Supreme Court.

"It's not going to change the landscape," Antognini said. "But it will make some of these lawsuits easier to bring and to prosecute."

According to Courthouse News Service, Dora Leon sued after her husband, José Leon, was fatally shot in 2017 by a neighbor in the Cherry Valley mobile home park where they lived. When the first deputies arrived shortly after the shooting, new shots rang out nearby and the deputies dragged José's lifeless body behind their SUV, causing his pants to fall down and exposing his genitals. He was left lying like that until the evening as law enforcement evacuated the park and investigated the shooting.

Both the trial court judge and the appellate court had a consensus that Dora was not able to sue for emotional distress and negligence due to law enforcement's failure to prioritize and actually cover up her husband's body due to the occurrence of events that were going during the shooting investigation led by deputies.

However, one of the judges on the appellate panel two years ago, Associate Justice Michael Raphael, while concurring in the dismissal of Dora Leon's lawsuit, wrote a separate opinion to point out how California's court of appeals have been interpreting the law differently from the state's supreme court, according to Courthouse News Service.

Raphael noted in particular that the federal courts have interpreted the California statute along the lines of the 1974 California Supreme Court decision, limiting immunity under 821.6 to wrongful prosecution claims, which meant that state courts and federal courts in California used different standards for deciding police misconduct claims under the same state law (Courthouse News Service 2023).

"If the negligence claim in this case were adjudicated in our federal district court, it appears that section 821.6 would permit it," Raphael noted.

Raphael's observations teed-up the trip to the California Supreme Court to clarify the limits of the immunity defense under this section of state law, Antognini said.

Lawyers representing Riverside County didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

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