Court Affirms that Municipal and Law Enforcement Agencies Have Limited Liability for Claims Related to False Arrest

Santiago Rivera was falsely detained twice, the second time for several weeks, because authorities incorrectly believed that he was the man identified in an arrest warrant. After the second arrest, Rivera filed suit, alleging violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and state law.  Rivera’s claims were rejected by the Ninth Circuit.  (Rivera v. County of Los Angeles (— F.3d —-,  C.A.9 (Cal.), March 12, 2014).


In 1985, the Los Angeles Superior Court issued an arrested warrant for “Santiago Rivera".   In 1989, Montclair Police Department officers arrested Santiago Rivera (“the Plaintiff”) on a 1985 warrant. Fingerprint analysis, however, revealed that the Santiago Rivera who was arrested was not the Santiago Rivera sought by the warrant.  Due to the risk of future mistaken identification, the municipal court issued the Plaintiff a judicial clearance form, which indicated that he was not the subject of the warrant.

In 1989, the court reissued the warrant.  The reissued warrant made no mention of Plaintiff or the previous judicial clearance determination.  The 1989 warrant described the subject of the warrant as 5’5" tall and weighing 180 pounds.  Plaintiff’s driver’s license described him as 5’6’’ tall and weighing 170 pounds.

On March 7, 2009, deputies from the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department stopped Plaintiff’s car because it lacked a license plate.  During the stop, the deputies were alerted to the outstanding warrant and arrested Plaintiff.  Although Plaintiff protested, he was unable to locate the judicial clearance form and was taken into custody.

The next day Plaintiff, represented by a public defender, appeared in Los Angeles Superior Court, but did not tell the judge that he was the not subject of the warrant.  Two weeks later on March 24, 2009, Plaintiff argued at his second hearing that he was not the subject of the warrant.  The court was unable to determine if he was the subject of the warrant at that time.  Plaintiff was not released until April 9, 2009, and only after it was determined that his fingerprints did not match the fingerprints of the true subject of the warrant.

Plaintiff sued Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department, San Bernardino County, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department (“the Defendants”), alleging violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments under 42 USC Section 1983 (“Section 1983”), violation of the Bane Act (Cal. Civ. Code Section 52.1), and common law false imprisonment.  The district court granted the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff’s claims.


In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

Regarding the Plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment claim, the court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that the amendment’s particularity requirement required the inclusion of fingerprint information in the actual warrant.  The court found that the 1989 warrant was sufficient, as it included a name and physical description of the subject.  The court also rejected Plaintiff’s claim that his actual arrest violated the Fourth Amendment, because the court found that the arresting officers had a good faith, reasonable belief that Plaintiff was the subject of the warrant.  Furthermore, the court found that the Defendants were not liable under Section 1983 because the Plaintiff was unable to establish that the alleged constitutional violations occurred as a result of an official municipal policy.  Therefore, Plaintiff failed to establish municipal liability under Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. Of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

The court also rejected Plaintiff’s claim that his arrest was unconstitutional  under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.  The court found that to support such a claim Plaintiff must show that either (1) the circumstances indicated to the Defendants that further investigation was warranted, or (2) the Defendants denied Plaintiff access to the courts for an extended period of time.  The court held that Plaintiff failed to make either showing.  Furthermore, the court noted that after the initial court hearing, Plaintiff was detained pursuant to a court order.  The court held that “[i]f a suspect is held according to court order, county officials are not required to investigate whether that court order is proper.”

Finally, the court found that the Government Claims Act provides the Defendants with immunity from Plaintiff’s state law claims.  Specifically, because Civil Code section 43.55(a) and Penal Code section 847(b)(1) provide the arresting and detaining officers with immunity if they act reasonably and without malice, the Defendants too enjoy such immunity under the Government Claims Act.  Cal. Gov’t Code Section 815.2(b).


Justice Paez disagreed with the majority’s analysis of the due process claim and the defendant’s liability under Monell.  The justice argued that the controlling law provides that a due process violation may occur if “an officer or jailer should have known that the detainee was entitled to release.”  Furthermore, the justice argued that municipal liability could be established by the evidence showing that Los Angeles County investigated claims of false arrest only if such claims were stated in a very specific manner.  Therefore, Justice Paez found that summary judgment on the due process claim was improper because a reasonable jury could find in favor of Plaintiff on the claim.

What This Means To You

This case affirms that municipal and law enforcement agencies have limited liability for claims related to false arrest, when the arrest is made in reliance on a validly issued warrant, and the officers have a good faith, reasonable belief that the arrest is lawful.  It also establishes that officers do not have a duty to investigate whether a court ordered detention is proper.


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