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Ramirez v. County of San Diego

April 15, 2009

BENNY RAMIREZ; MARIA RAMIREZ; AND AS SURVIVING HEIRS OF JORGE RAMIREZ, DECEASED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COUNTY OF SAN DIEGO, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION; CAPTAIN ROB AHERN, AN INDIVIDUAL; DEPUTY MARK RITCHIE, AN INDIVIDUAL; AND DOES 1 THROUGH 100, INCLUSIVE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Jeffrey T. Miller United States District Judge

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT Doc. No. 76

Defendants County of San Diego, Rob Ahern, and Mark Ritchie, move for summary judgment or partial summary judgment on Plaintiffs' complaint, which sets forth claims arising out of an officer-involved, fatal shooting of Plaintiffs' son, Jorge Ramirez ("Ramirez"). Plaintiffs filed an opposition (Doc. No. 77, Opp'n) and Defendants submitted a reply brief (Doc. No. 79.) Following the parties' oral arguments on April 3, 2009, the court took the matter under submission. After considering the papers and the parties' arguments, and for the reasons set forth below, the court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the motion for summary judgment.

The parties each made requests for judicial notice of various documentary evidence. (Doc. Nos. 76-9 and 79-2 (Defs.) and 77-18 (Pls.).) Plaintiffs lodged numerous objections to evidence offered by Defendants. (Doc. No. 77-19, Obj. to Evid.) Where the court makes reference to a particular document, the parties may assume the court has granted judicial notice thereof for the purposes of the summary judgment rulings only. For documents not cited in the following discussion, the court has declined to rule on the relevant request for judicial notice. Finally, any factual findings contained in this order are based on the evidentiary records before the court and are made for the limited purpose of aiding the court in its rulings herein.

I. BACKGROUND

On July 29, 2005, at about 9:00 p.m., a Circle K convenience store in Vista was robbed at gunpoint by two Hispanic males in their twenties wearing dark gloves, clothing, and bandanas over their faces. (Defs. Mem. Supp. Mot. ("Mot.") at 2; Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 3-4.) Law enforcement agents were immediately notified, and the particulars were broadcast by radio along with an alert regarding a similar commercial burglary carried out the day before by similarly described suspects driving an "all black" two-door Jeep Wrangler. (Id.; Doc. No. 77 ("Opp'n"), Exh. 11.)

Although Deputy Mark Ritchie was going on 15 hours of duty, he was on patrol and responded to the call. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶¶ 3-4.) Based on his familiarity with the area, he reasoned the nearby, low-traffic area of Thibodo Park might serve as a staging area or escape route for the robbers. (Id. at ¶ 5.) As Deputy Ritchie neared the park entrance, he saw a "dark colored Jeep Wrangler" (actually a navy Jeep Wrangler with a grey hard top, see Opp'n, Exh. 13) and a small car following close behind exit the park's parking lot onto Lupine Hills Drive. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 5.) Deputy Ritchie shined his spotlight on the tailing vehicle, which abruptly pulled to the side of the road and stopped. (Id. at ¶ 6; Opp'n, Exh. 2--Interview.) With his spotlight on the Jeep, Deputy Ritchie saw three occupants inside, and the Jeep also stopped quickly after a short distance. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 6.) The occupants of the Jeep jumped out and ran in different directions: the two passengers into a wooded, residential area adjacent to the park and the driver, later identified as Jorge Ramirez, down the street back toward the park entrance. (Id.; Opp'n, Exh. 2 at 90.) According to Deputy Ritchie, the men matched the robbery suspects' description. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 6.) Deputy Ritchie exited the patrol car without transmitting his location by car radio and began chasing Ramirez on foot in an easterly direction. (Id.) In his pursuit, Deputy Ritchie passed the second vehicle as it drove away in the opposite direction. (Id.)

After a short distance, Deputy Ritchie saw Ramirez reach to the front of his trousers waistband with his right hand. (Id. at ¶ 7.) According to Deputy Ritchie, based on his experience, he was concerned Ramirez was reaching for a weapon, particularly since the earlier robbery had been perpetrated by suspects armed with a gun. (Id.) Deputy Ritchie therefore began firing his weapon at Ramirez while the two continued running. Over the next tenth of a mile, while running at full speed, Deputy Ritchie fired 16 rounds at Ramirez, including 11 in an area approximately 150-200 feet east of the patrol car and another five approximately 300-400 feet farther east. (Opp'n, Exh. 12.) Two of these latter five shots hit Ramirez in the posterior right leg. (Id.) Ramirez then slowed and fell to the pavement on his right side. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 7.) According to Deputy Ritchie, he attempted to call for back-up on his portable radio during the foot pursuit, but received low-battery signals from the radio. (Id. at ¶ 10.) Two broadcasts made during the chase appear to have been cut off. (Mot., Exh. M-2.)

Deputy Ritchie approached Ramirez with his handgun trained on the suspect. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 7.) He then saw the second vehicle returning down Lupine Hills Drive toward him. (Id.) In addition, Deputy Ritchie observed Ramirez moving his body, particularly his arms moving about his midsection. (Id. at ¶ 7-8.) According to Deputy Ritchie, because of the dark of night and Ramirez's dark clothing and gloves, he was unable to distinguish the exact movements, but believed Ramirez was still attempting to reach a weapon to use against him. (Id. at ¶ 8.) Deputy Ritchie felt "Ramirez's actions constituted an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death," particularly in light of the returning second vehicle and unknown locations of the other Jeep passengers, so he reloaded his weapon and fired an additional six times, striking Ramirez in the chest. (Id.; Opp'n, Exh. 2--Interview, Exh.12.) Ramirez fell back to the pavement, ending in a prone position with his arms outstretched. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 8.) The driver of the approaching second vehicle, Ariana Sosa, testified in her deposition that she believed Ramirez was attempting to raise his hands in surrender but her testimony is unclear as to whether she believed Ramirez's hands were raised before, during, or after the point when Deputy Ritchie fired his weapon. (Opp'n, Exh. 10 at 65:20-21, 66:22-67:25; Defs. Reply, Exh. W at 63:14-20.) After firing the final six shots, Deputy Ritchie successfully broadcast a request for someone to call his cell phone. (Mot., Decl. Ritchie at ¶ 10.)

Based on Plaintiffs' representations during oral argument, four claims remain to be litigated. (See First Amended Complaint ("FAC"), Doc. No. 81.) Two claims are alleged against Deputy Ritchie, including the decedent's § 1983 claim for excessive force in violation of the 4th Amendment and the § 1983 claim for loss of familial association in violation of the 14th Amendment by the decedent's parents, Plaintiffs Benny and Maria Ramirez. (Id.) Against the County and Captain Ahern, Captain for the Sheriff Department's Vista Patrol Station at the time of the shooting, Plaintiffs assert Monell municipal federal civil rights claims for failure to train and supervise, predicated in turn on the constitutional violations alleged as part of the two § 1983 claims.*fn1 (Id.) During oral argument, Plaintiffs clarified the Monell claims stem from the narrowly defined factual theory that the County, as a policy, practice, or custom, provided inadequate training to its deputies as to what constitutes "imminent danger" in the context of a fleeing suspect. //

II. DISCUSSION

Defendants raise several points in their motion. First, they argue Plaintiffs lack standing to assert the decedent's § 1983/excessive force claim as well as their own § 1983/14th Amendment claims (and by inference, the related Monell claims). Second, Defendants assert Deputy Ritchie's use of force was objectively reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Third, Defendants argue Plaintiffs' § 1983/14th Amendment claim fails because Plaintiffs did not show: 1) a sufficiently close relationship with their son such that his death constituted deprivation of a constitutionally protected liberty interest and 2) Deputy Ritchie acted with a purpose to harm Ramirez unrelated to legitimate law enforcement objectives. Fourth, Defendants assert Deputy Ritchie is otherwise entitled to qualified immunity. Fifth, they contend the County is not liable under Monell because no County policy, custom, or practice resulted in any constitutional violation. Finally, Defendants argue any award of punitive damages would be improper as a matter of law because no evidence has been presented to show Defendants acted with the requisite culpability.

A. Standard of Review

A motion for summary judgment shall be granted where, based on the pleadings, affidavits, and other supporting papers permitted by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); British Airways Bd. v. Boeing Co., 585 F.2d 946, 951 (9th Cir. 1978), cert. denied, 440 U.S. 981 (1979). The moving party bears the initial burden of informing the court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of the file which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). Once the movant has made such a showing, "the nonmoving party may not rely on the mere allegations in the pleadings in order to preclude summary judgment." Nillson, Robbins, Dalgarn, Berliner, Carson & Wurst v. La. Hydrolec, 854 F.2d 1538, 1542 (9th Cir. 1988) (internal quotations omitted). Rather, the opposing party must "go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324 (internal quotations omitted). At least some "significant probative evidence" must be produced to create a genuine issue of fact for trial. Nilsson, 854 F.2d at 1542. An issue is "genuine" only if, viewed in the light most favorable to the opponent, "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." U.S. v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

B. Standing

1. Decedent's ยง 1983/Fourth ...


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