By Brian Kabateck
On June 22, the California Supreme Court unanimously overruled a decades-old lower court precedent that has shielded California police from civil suits involving misconduct during investigations.
Under the Government Claims Act, California law grants police immunity for harm inflicted during prosecution, even if an officer acted “maliciously and without probable cause.” In 1994, a state appeals court took a broad view of this law, interpreting it to include the investigation process (before any charges have been filed). That ruling has been used to dismiss many suits against law enforcement that did not involve prosecution, even though this interpretation was at odds with a 1974 California Supreme Court ruling.
“Now, the Supreme Court says police can be sued for misconduct during investigations,” the AP reported. The decision comes after the Supreme Court reinstated an earlier case that a lower court had dismissed: Dora Leon vs. The County of Riverside.
In 2017, José Leon of Riverside County was fatally shot by a neighbor in the driveway of a mobile home park in Cherry Valley. When Riverside Sheriff’s deputies arrived, they heard additional shots. They dragged Leon’s body behind a police vehicle and unsuccessfully attempted to revive him. The movement of his body pulled the victim’s pants down to his ankles, exposing his genitals.
Over approximately eight hours, while the police evacuated, secured the area, and searched for the shooter, Leon’s body lay half naked and exposed to the elements until the coroner arrived.
The shooter was eventually found dead from a self-inflicted gun wound. Prosecutors never filed any charges.
The victim’s wife, Dora Leon, sued the county for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Her suit alleged that the officers and the county, responsible for their employment, failed to exercise a basic duty of care when they left José’s body uncovered, in plain view of his wife and the public, for an extended period while investigating the shooting. The appellate court found that negligence, if any, occurred during the official investigation process, that the officers were therefore immune from liability, and that the county was protected from vicarious liability for the officers’ actions.
Last month, the California Supreme Court said that was wrong. In reinstating the Leon case after it had been dismissed by the lower court, overturning precedent, and ruling against the county, the state’s highest court has opened a crucial path to justice for victims of police misconduct.
Richard Antognini, a lawyer representing Dora Leon, says police departments have commonly argued that they have broad immunity from damage claims beginning “the moment a police officer arrives on the scene of a crime.” He added that if the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Riverside County, “it would have essentially immunized them for almost anything.”
Justice Leondra Kruger, who authored the court’s opinion, wrote, “The potential for factual overlap between investigations and prosecutions does not justify treating them as one and the same.”
Although the law still gives police immunity for certain aspects of investigations, this ruling is an important step in holding law enforcement accountable and pushing forward on critical reform issues.
Police misconduct claims are a complex and challenging area of civil rights law. If you believe that you or someone you love has been a victim of police misconduct, the experienced and caring plaintiff’s attorneys at KBK can help you understand your rights and determine the legal merit of your case.