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Davis v. County of San Bernardino

November 13, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stephen V. Wilson United States District Judge



Plaintiff has brought an action under Cal. Civ. Code § 52.1 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against police Sergeant Steve Spear, the County of San Bernardino, and the County of San Bernardino Sheriff's Department. Plaintiff's case is premised on two basic assertions: he was arrested without probable cause and he was subjected to excessive force during that arrest. Plaintiff's causes of action assert violations of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 13 of the California Constitution. (Pl.'s Trial Brief, at 2.) The municipal entities' liability is premised on Cal. Gov. Code § 815.2(a), which provides that government entities are vicariously liable for the acts of their employees to the extent that the employees are personally liable, and Monell v. Dep't of Social Servs. of N.Y., 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978).

In April 2009, Defendants brought a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [docket no. 26]. Plaintiff conceded that his Fourth Amendment wrongful arrest claim was barred by Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001). The Court deferred a ruling on Defendants' arguments regarding the effect of Heck v. Humphrey and qualified immunity.

The Court held a bench trial on September 22, 2009.


By way of introduction, the Court notes that, to the extent that the parties dispute the facts at issue, the court finds Mr. Davis's testimony not to be credible. Mr. Davis's testimony is contradicted on various points by Sgt. Spear's and Mr. O'Brien's testimony. In light of this consideration, the Court makes the following factual findings.

On October 16, 2007, Plaintiff Kent Davis was visiting his ill mother in 29 Palms, which is located near Joshua Tree, California. At around 11:00 am, Davis went to the Joshua Tree branch of the San Bernardino Superior Court to deliver documents for his mother. Davis was driving his mother's classic 1976 Cadillac. Upon his arrival and the courthouse, Davis parked the car along the curb directly in front of the courthouse entrance. The general parking area was some distance away. The area where Davis parked was clearly marked on the pavement in a bold, yellow box, with the words "MAINTENANCE ONLY."

While at the courthouse, Davis was initially turned away by the security guards at the entrance checkpoint because Davis was carrying a cellular phone that included a picture-taking function. As cameras are not allowed in the courthouse, Davis was required to place the phone in his car before entering the courthouse.

Defendant Sgt. Steve Spear first noticed Davis when Davis was discussing the cellular phone with the security guards. The encounter between Davis and the security guards was generally amicable but Davis was animated. Immediately following the encounter, Sgt. Spear asked one of the guards if Davis had a problem, and the guard replied that he did.

Sgt. Spear approached Davis as Davis was returning his phone to his car. Sgt. Spear asked Davis to move his car because it was parked in a no-parking zone. Davis's initial response was to smirk at Sgt. Spear, then walk around the car looking underneath it as if he had not already noticed the no-parking label. After Davis looked at the "MAINTENANCE ONLY" marking on the ground, he complied with Sgt. Spear's request. When Davis parked the car in the general parking lot, the car occupied four separate parking spaces.

While Davis was moving the car, Sgt. Spear noticed the car did not have license plates on the rear of the car. Sgt. Spear walked to where Davis had parked and looked at the front of the car to see if there were any front license plates. There were none.

By the time Sgt. Spear had finished checking for the license plates, Davis had walked back toward the courthouse. When Sgt. Spear approach, Davis said something to the effect of "I knew you were going to check my car. Did you have to wait until I walked away before you checked my car?"

Sgt. Spear then asked Davis about his license plates. Davis replied by noting that, lying flat along the back ledge of the car interior, there was a Missouri dealer plate that had been loaned to his mother. The registration tags on the plates had expired in December 2003. Davis noted that the car had been purchased in Oklahoma. Davis believed that these expired Missouri plates, placed on a car purchased in Oklahoma, were sufficient to permit him to drive his car in California until he obtained proper registration. Davis noted that he was visiting his mother.

Sgt. Spear asked Davis to provide registration for the vehicle. Davis responded by referring to the Missouri dealer plate. Sgt. Spear again asked Davis to provide registration for the vehicle. Sgt. Spear informed Davis that Sgt. Spear would run a registration search, and if it was not properly registered Sgt. Spear would be required to tow it. Davis asked "What can I do to get you to leave the car," and Sgt. Spear answered by saying that Davis would have to produce the registration for the vehicle.

Davis then asked if he could return to the courthouse to take care of his business, and Sgt. Spear said that he could. While Davis was in the courthouse, Sgt. Spear contacted dispatch and ran a Vehicle Identification Number search of the vehicle. At no point did Sgt. Spear believe that the car was stolen.

While the search was pending, Davis returned and asked Sgt. Spear if Davis could speak with Sgt. Spear's watch commander. Sgt. Spear responded by pointing to his uniform patch and stating that he was the watch commander.

Davis told Sgt. Spear that Davis could provide the title for the vehicle. Sgt. Spear replied that he was interested in the registration rather than the title.

Davis then opened his cellular phone and began talking to his mother. Davis told his mother that the Cadillac would be towed unless she brought the title to the courthouse. Sgt. Spear again told Davis that he needed the registration rather than the title. Soon after, Sgt. Spear asked Davis to hang up the phone and Davis complied.

After the conversation, without being prompted, Davis told Sgt. Spear that Davis had a Missouri permit to carry a concealed weapon. Davis intended for this statement to prove to Sgt. Spear that Davis was a law-abiding citizen. Sgt. Spear asked Davis if had a weapon with him, and Davis said that he did not. Sgt. Spear believed this answer and did not fear for his safety at this point in the sequence of events.

Davis then walked toward and away from Sgt. Spear while complaining about the decision to tow the car. Without explanation, Davis then walked to the front passenger side door and reached into the car. Davis spent some time looking at and shuffling through his belongings. At this point, Sgt. Spear began to be concerned regarding his personal safety. Davis did not remove anything from the car. Sgt. Spear noted that there were no weapons in the car, then closed the car door. Davis then walked to the rear of the car and stood near the trunk.

Sgt. Spear asked Davis if his mother would be bringing the vehicle's registration. Davis replied that Sgt. Spear would not do anything until Davis's mother arrived. Sgt. Spear said that he would drop the matter if Davis provided a valid registration. Davis again told Sgt. Spear "you will do nothing." Sgt. Spear once again asked for registration, and Davis said "No. You have to wait for my mother."

At this point, dispatch responded with the results of the Vehicle Identification Number search. The search showed that the Cadillac did not appear in any system as being registered in Missouri or California. Sgt. Spear told Davis that the car was not registered and that Sgt. ...

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