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Garcia v. City of Imperial

September 14, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Barry Ted Moskowitz United States District Judge



Defendants City of Imperial (the "City"), Officer Abel Heredia ("Heredia"), and Corporal Albert Valenzuela ("Valenzuela") (collectively "Defendants") have filed a motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, partial summary judgment. Plaintiff Ruben Garcia ("Plaintiff") has filed a motion for partial summary judgment on his claims that Defendants are liable for unlawful arrest under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (First Cause of action), false arrest under California law (Sixth Cause of Action), and violation of Cal. Civ. Code § 52.1 due to unlawful arrest (Eighth Cause of Action). For the reasons discussed below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART and Plaintiff's cross-motion for partial summary judgment is DENIED.


On November 3, 2007, at approximately 4:40 p.m., Heredia, Valenzuela, and Sergeant Ramos responded to a dispatch regarding an alleged act of graffiti at P Street and Fonzie by a Hispanic juvenile wearing a white t-shirt and black shorts. (Heredia Dep. (Ex. A to Egnatios Decl.), 92:21-97:6, 107:25-108:2.) The three officers drove separately to the area around P and Fonzie. (Heredia Dep., 96:12-14.)

When Heredia was on Fonzie, dispatch informed the officers that the suspect was running eastbound on Mazatlan. (Heredia Dep., 111:9-13.) Heredia proceeded to Mazatlan. (Heredia Dep., 113:4-6.) Heredia was headed eastbound on Mazatlan when he saw Plaintiff, a 16-year old who was wearing a white t-shirt and dark shorts. (Heredia Dep., 113:8-10; Garcia Dep. (Ex. D to Rasmussen Decl.), 98:14-25; Ex. C to Garcia Dep.) Heredia also saw a white Ford F-250 matching the description of the vehicle driven by the witness who reported the incident. (Heredia Dep., 113:10-15.)

Heredia sped up when he saw Plaintiff. (Heredia Dep., 122:6.) Plaintiff turned around, looked at Heredia, and sarted running. (Heredia Dep., 122:7-10.) Plaintiff cut into the yard of the house just west of 200 W. Mazatlan, and Heredia parked his car in front of the house. (Heredia Dep. 127:4-5.) When Heredia got out of his car, Plaintiff jumped a cinder-block wall into the backyard of 200 W. Mazatlan. (Heredia Dep., 127:6-15.) Plaintiff has resided at 200 W. Mazatlan since 2003. (Garcia Decl. ¶ 2.)

The backyard of 200 Mazatlan is enclosed by an approximately six-foot cinder-block wall. (Heredia Dep., 131:7-8; Exs. B-C to Garcia Decl.) At the south-west side of the house, a chain-link gate connects the house to the wall. (Garcia Decl. ¶ 3.) Solid slats in the chain-link gate provide privacy. (Ex. B to Garcia Decl.)

Heredia claims that as Plaintiff was jumping the cinder-block wall, Heredia told Plaintiff to stop and identified himself as a police officer. (Heredia Dep., 128:13-15.) After Plaintiff jumped the wall, Heredia peeked over the chain-link gate. (Heredia Dep., 128:17-18.) Heredia claims that he told Plaintiff to stop and get on the ground but Plaintiff flipped him off and said, "F__ you." (Heredia Dep., 129:21-25.) Plaintiff denies ever "flipping the bird" or saying, "F__ you" to an officer. (Garcia Dep. (Ex. C to Egnatios Decl.), 113:15-23.)

According to Plaintiff, after he jumped the wall, he attempted to open a side door that led to the garage, but the door was locked. (Garcia Dep., 78:16-79:12.) Plaintiff did not have keys to the house on him. (Garcia Dep., 76:17-19.) When Plaintiff realized that the door was locked, he started walking north toward the back portion of the yard. (Garcia Dep., 79:23-24.) At some point after Plaintiff jumped the wall, Plaintiff noticed Heredia standing at the gate, but he does not remember exactly when this was. (Garcia Dep., 78:9-15.) While Plaintiff was still on the side of the house, Plaintiff heard Heredia open the gate. (Garcia Dep. 80:7-16.) Plaintiff let Heredia know he was in Plaintiff's backyard "when he opened the gate." (Garcia Dep., 91:24-25.) Plaintiff does not recall whether Heredia said anything between the time Plaintiff first noticed him and the time he entered the gate. (Garcia Dep., 80:17-20.)

Plaintiff claims he never made it to the back of the house because he was tased by Heredia. (Garcia Dep., 80:5-6; 81:3-5.) Plaintiff states that he was walking toward the back of the house when Heredia first told him he was going to tase him and then tased him in the back right afterward. (Garcia Dep., 83:7-20.) Heredia did not give Plaintiff time to comply with the warning. (Garcia Dep., 84:13-16.) Only a couple of seconds elapsed between the time Heredia gave his warning and Plaintiff was tased. (Garcia Dep., 85:8-12.) The X-26 Advanced Taser was used in dart mode, and Plaintiff was tased for one cycle. (Heredia Dep., 163:20-164:7; Answer ¶ 2.) After Plaintiff was hit in the back with the taser darts, he blacked out. (Garcia Dep., 85:17.) When he regained consciousness, three officers helped him up and took him to a curb to sit down. (Garcia Dep., 85:19-21.) An ambulance and firefighters were already on the scene, and Plaintiff was taken to the hospital. (Garcia Dep., 85:21-86:4.)

The officers tell a different story. Heredia states that after Plaintiff jumped the wall and ignored his command to stop and get on the ground, Plaintiff headed north toward the back of the house and turned east behind the house. (Heredia Dep., 139:3-8.) Corporal Valenzuela was positioned behind the cinder-block wall on the east side of the property. He was standing on top of an electrical box so he could see over the wall. (Valenzuela Dep., 98:7-11.) Valenzuela says that he saw Plaintiff walk north toward the back of the house, turn the corner and walk east along the back of the house, and then turn south along the east side of the house. (Valenzuela Dep., 105:8-14.) Valenzuela says that he identified himself as Imperial Police and told Plaintiff to get on the ground. (Valenzuela Dep., 108:3-5.) Plaintiff looked at Valenzuela, kept on walking south, and tried to open a sliding glass door on the east side of the house. (Valenzuela Dep., 108:7-25.) Plaintiff then turned back around and started walking north. (Valenzuela Dep., 109:23-24.) Valenzuela again identified himself as Imperial Police. (Valenzuela Dep., 108:22-24.) Plaintiff continued to walk west along the back of the house to the west side of the house, which was when Valenzuela lost sight of him. (Valenzuela Dep., 111:1-3.) At this point, Valenzuela jumped into the backyard. (Valenzuela Dep., 111:16.) Valenzuela was walking toward the west side of the house when he heard the taser deployed. (Valenzuela Dep., 112:12.)

According to Heredia, before Plaintiff reappeared on the west side of the house, Heredia heard Valenzuela say that Plaintiff had tried to open a door or window. (Heredia Dep., 139:12-13.) Heredia opened the gate and entered the property about the time that Garcia rounded the northwest corner of the house. (Heredia Dep., 142:8-15.) Heredia backed up toward the gate and told Plaintiff to stop. (Heredia Dep., 142:17-18.) Heredia pulled out his taser because Plaintiff was not obeying his commands. (Heredia Dep., 142:19-20.) Heredia told Plaintiff, "Stop, or I'll tase you." (Heredia Dep., 142:21.) Plaintiff started doing something with a window, and Heredia repeated, "Stop, or I'll tase you."*fn1 (Heredia Dep., 142:21-23.) Plaintiff turned around and looked at Heredia and then turned back around and walked the other way. (Heredia Dep., 142:24-25.) Heredia says that he tased Plaintiff when he saw his right hand go over his crotch area. (Heredia Dep., 143:1-2.)*fn2 Heredia estimates that about a half a minute passed between the time he gave his first warning that he would tase Plaintiff and the time he deployed the taser, and that about 5-10 seconds passed between the second warning and the deployment of the taser. (Heredia Dep., 164:14-21.)

Plaintiff denies trying to enter his house through a sliding glass door and maintains that he never made it to the back of the house. (Garcia Dep., 81:3-9.) Plaintiff does not recall if he ever tried to open a window. (Garcia Dep., 81:20-24.) Plaintiff denies he was reaching toward his waist at or near the time he was shot with the taser. (Garcia Decl. ¶ 3.)

In his First Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges the following causes of action: (1) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (unlawful arrest) (against Heredia and Valenzuela); (2) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (excessive force) (against Heredia); (3) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (unlawful customs or practices) (against City of Imperial); (4) negligence (against Heredia); (5) assault and battery (against Heredia); (6) false arrest (against Heredia and Valenzuela); (7) intentional infliction of emotional distress (against Heredia); (8) violation of Cal. Civ. Code § 52.1 (against Heredia and Valenzuela); and (9) supervisory liability (against the City).


Summary judgment is appropriate under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). A fact is material when, under the governing substantive law, it could affect the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Freeman v. Arpaio, 125 F.3d 732, 735 (9th Cir. 1997). A dispute is genuine if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

A party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden in two ways: (1) by presenting evidence that negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's case; or (2) by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's case on which the nonmoving party bears the burden of proving at trial. Id. at 322-23. "Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment." T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pacific Elec. Contractors Ass'n, 809 F.2d 626, 630 (9th Cir. 1987).

Once the moving party establishes the absence of genuine issues of material fact, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to set forth facts showing that a genuine issue of disputed fact remains. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 314. The nonmoving party cannot oppose a properly supported summary judgment motion by "rest[ing] on mere allegations or denials of his pleadings." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 256. When ruling on a summary judgment motion, the court must view all inferences drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).


A. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 -- Unlawful Arrest

1. Is Plaintiff's Claim Barred by Heck v. Humphrey or Collateral Estoppel ?

2. Are Defendants Entitled to Qualified Immunity?

Defendants contend that they did not violate Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights by entering into his backyard without a warrant and that even if they did, they are entitled to qualified immunity.

The qualified immunity inquiry consists of two prongs: (1) Taking the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, did the officer's conduct violate a constitutional right?; and (2) If a violation occurred, was the right clearly established in light of the specific context of the case? al-Kidd v. Ashcroft, 580 F.3d 949, 964 (9th Cir. 2009); Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). It is within the discretion of the court to decide which of the two prongs should be addressed first in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand. Pearson v. Callahan, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 808, 818 (2009).

The Court believes that the best way to approach this case is by answering the second inquiry first. Accordingly, the relevant inquiry is whether, assuming Heredia and Valenzuela violated Plaintiff's Fourth Amendment rights by entering into his backyard, they violated clearly established law. This inquiry focuses on the "objective legal reasonableness of the action, assessed in light of the legal rules that were clearly established at the time it was taken." Wilson v. Layne, 526 U.S. 603, 614 (1999).

As discussed below, upon reviewing the case law and the unique facts presented in this case, the Court concludes that Defendants did not violate clearly established law. Heredia and Valenzuela reasonably could have believed that they could enter into ...

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