In Edgerly v. City and County of San Francisco (— F.3d —-, C.A.9 (Cal.), April 10, 2013), the United States Court of Appeals considered whether a police department could be held liable for holding a person in custody after he was cited for an infraction. The Penal Code permits police to arrest a person cited for an infraction when the person refuses to sign a promise to appear, lacks identification, and refuses to provide a thumbprint. The City argued that the expanded grounds for a custodial arrest for misdemeanors also apply to infractions. The court found the Penal Code specifically enumerates those limited situations permitting a custodial arrest for an infraction, and that section of the Penal Code prevails over any other less specific law which may be interpreted differently. Thus, the custodial arrest of a person cited for an infraction based upon other than one of the three grounds listed in Section 853.5(a) could result in damages.
In 2000, San Francisco ("City") police officers arrested Erris Edgerly for trespassing, an infraction, after they observed him within a fenced housing project. The officers searched Edgerly and took him into custody to a police station where they performed further searches which did not result in finding any contraband. Edgerly was then cited for trespassing and released.
Edgerly brought a lawsuit against the City and the police officers in federal district court alleging, among other things, violations of California Penal Code Section 853.5(a), which allows persons cited for infractions to be held in custody only under three specific circumstances: 1) if the person refuses to sign a promise to appear; 2) lacks identification; or 3) refuses to provide a fingerprint or thumbprint. The district court granted summary judgment for the City but the court of appeals reversed, finding no evidence that any of those three conditions applied to Edgerly. The case was remanded for further proceedings.
On remand, the City raised a new argument, that the first sentence of Section 853.5(a) in fact allowed Edgerly to be held. It reads: "Except as otherwise provided by law, in any case in which a person is arrested for an offense declared to be an infraction, the person may be released according to the procedures set forth by this chapter for the release of persons arrested for an offense declared to be a misdemeanor." The City argued that language allowed persons cited for infractions, for purposes of custody, to be treated as if they were arrested for misdemeanors, providing many additional grounds for custody as specified in Penal Code Section 853.6(i).
On remand, the district court permitted these broader grounds for non release to be submitted to the jury, which again ruled in favor of the City. Edgerly again appealed.
Since it was a federal court, the court needed to determine how the California Supreme Court would apply state law. In particular, the court needed to determine whether Section 853.5(a) incorporates all of Section 853.6(i), including the grounds for non release, or whether it incorporates just the release procedures. In its analysis, the court noted two California court of appeal decisions which clearly held that Section 853.6(i) does not apply to infractions. The court did note a contrary holding in a case from an appellate department of the superior court. The appellate department, however, is inferior to the court of appeal, and its decisions are not binding on the court of appeal. Consequently, the court did not feel compelled to follow the decision of the appellate department, and instead relied upon the court of appeal decisions.
The court also determined that rules of statutory construction support the two court of appeal decisions. First, the ordinary and natural meaning of the statutory terms suggest that “procedures for release” and “grounds for non release” constitute two difference subjects. Second, incorporation of the Section 853.6(i) grounds for non-release would conflict with Section 853.5(a) which expressly only allows three grounds for non release of a person cited for an infraction. Third, it is a general rule of statutory interpretation that a "statutory provision containing specific enumeration shall take precedence over another couched in more general language." Here, the court found the specific enumerations for the non release of a person in Section 853.5(a) prevailed over a less specific interpretation allowing for the incorporation of other grounds for non release. Fourth, a court should strive to give meaning to every word in a statute, and simply incorporating grounds for non-release would mean the specific listing of the three grounds applicable to infractions would serve no purpose. Finally, limiting the grounds for non release to the three situations listed in Section 853.5(a) is consistent with the views expressed in a leading legal treatise on California law. Upon analysis, the court found no compelling evidence the California Supreme Court would not follow the two court of appeal decisions. Therefore, the district court erred in permitting the broader grounds for non release to be submitted to the jury.
The judgment for the City was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings with a direction to enter judgment in favor of Edgerly, assuming there were no further issues pertaining to liability, and to proceed to a trial on damages.
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