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Daniel J. Bulfer v. Patrick Dobbins

February 7, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Janis L. Sammartino United States District Judge



(Doc. Nos. 13, 14)

Presently before the Court are Plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment (Doc. No. 13) and Defendants' motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, partial summary judgment (Doc. No. 14). Also before the Court are the parties' respective oppositions and replies. (Doc. Nos. 16 (Pl.'s Opp'n), 17 (Defs.' Opp'n), 18 (Defs.' Reply), 19 (Pl.'s Reply).) Having reviewed the parties arguments and the law, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion and DENIES Plaintiff's motion.


On April 19, 2008, Plaintiff Daniel J. Bulfer (Plaintiff) attended a dance on the campus of the University of California San Diego (UCSD). (Doc. No. 1 (Compl.) ¶ 6.) Plaintiff drove to the UCSD campus. (Doc. Nos. 14-3 to -11 (De La Cruz Decl. ISO MSJ) Ex. B (Bulfer Dep.), at 33.) Before entering the dance, Plaintiff drank vodka and orange juice in his car. (Id. at 26, 30--33; Doc. Nos. 13-2 to -6 (Marrinan Decl. ISO MSJ) Ex. 1 (Bulfer Dep.),*fn1 at 35--37.) Plaintiff drank between thirty-five and forty-five percent of a bottle of vodka. (Bulfer Dep. at 34--35, 37; Doc. No. 17-1 (Bulfer Decl.)

¶ 5.) Plaintiff then proceeded to the dance. (See Compl. ¶ 7.) At about 11:15 p.m, Plaintiff and his friend, Cody Harrison, left the dance to talk in Plaintiff's car. (Compl. ¶ 7; Bulfer Dep. 41.) When they got to the car, Plaintiff sat in the driver's seat and Mr. Harrison sat in the passenger's seat. (Compl. ¶ 7.) Plaintiff and Mr. Harrison talked and listened to a CD for about an hour. (Bulfer Dep. 41--43.)

Meanwhile, Defendant Patrick Dobbins (Officer Dobbins), a patrol officer with the UCSD Police Department, was on vehicle patrol. (Marrinan Decl. ISO MSJ Ex. 2 (Dobbins Dep.),*fn2 at 57.) At about 12:30 a.m. on April 20, 2008, Officer Dobbins noticed a parked car with its taillights illuminated. (Compl. ¶ 8; Dobbins Dep. 57.) Officer Dobbins parked at the far end of the parking lot to observe the car. (Dobbins Dep. 61--62.) After about five minutes, Officer Dobbins approached the car and knocked on the driver's window. (Compl. ¶ 8; Bulfer Dep. 54; Dobbins Dep. 61--62, 67--68, 71--72.) Plaintiff opened the car door, and Officer Dobbins asked whether Plaintiff and his passenger, Mr. Harrison, were okay. (Compl. ¶ 9; Bulfer Dep. 57--58; Dobbins Dep. 72.) Plaintiff explained that he and Mr. Harrison were sitting in the car to allow Mr. Harrison time to calm down after an unpleasant incident in the dance. (Compl. ¶ 9; Bulfer Dep. 57--58; Dobbins Dep. 72--73.)

Because he smelled alcohol, Officer Dobbins asked whether Plaintiff had been drinking. (Compl. ¶ 9; Bulfer Dep. 57--58; Dobbins Dep. 73.) Plaintiff responded in the affirmative. (Compl. ¶ 9; Bulfer Dep. 58; Dobbins Dep. 76.) Officer Dobbins suspected Plaintiff of driving under the influence and, accordingly, asked Plaintiff to step out of the car for a field sobriety test. (Compl. ¶ 10; Dobbins Dep. 77--79.) Based on Plaintiff's performance during the field sobriety test, Officer Dobbins determined that Plaintiff was impaired by alcohol. (Compl. ¶ 10; Dobbins Dep. 86.) Officer Dobbins asked Plaintiff to take a preliminary alcohol screening test, but Plaintiff refused. (Compl. ¶ 10; Bulfer Dep. 86--87; Dobbins Dep. 86--87.) At that point, Officer Dobbins placed Plaintiff under arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol and placed him in a patrol car. (Compl. ¶ 10; Bulfer Dep. 86--87; Dobbins Dep. 87--88.)

During Officer Dobbins's contact with Plaintiff, Defendants Manuel Garcia (Corporal Garcia), a corporal with the UCSD Police Department, and David Isley, a sergeant with the UCSD Police Department, arrived on the scene. (Marrinan Decl. ISO MSJ Ex. 4 (Garcia Dep.),*fn3 at 20, 23; De La Cruz Decl. ISO MSJ Ex. E (Isley Dep.), at 5, 22.) While Officer Dobbins was evaluating Plaintiff, Sergeant Isley walked around Plaintiff's car. (Isley Dep. 29.) Through the driver's side window, Sergeant Isley saw a knife in a sheath wedged between the door and the driver's seat. (Id. 29--30.)

After Officer Dobbins placed Plaintiff under arrest, Corporal Garcia offered to secure Plaintiff's car. (Garcia Dep. 48.) Officer Dobbins asked Corporal Garcia to secure the car, and Corporal Garcia went to the car to look for the keys. (Id. at 48--49.) The keys were not in the ignition, so Corporal Garcia looked around the car's passenger compartment for one to two minutes. (Id. at 49--51.) While he was looking for the keys, Corporal Garcia noticed orange juice containers and an alcohol bottle on the passenger's side floor board. (Id. at 52--54.) Corporal Garcia removed the bottles from the car and notified Officer Dobbins of his discovery. (Id. at 54--56.) After Corporal Garcia removed the bottles from the car, Sergeant Isley directed Corporal Garcia to check the driver's side floorboard. (Id. at 57, 61; see Isley Dep. 71.) On inspection of the driver's side floorboard, Corporal Garcia found a knife in a sheath. (Garcia Dep. 58--60.) Corporal Garcia eventually turned the knife and the bottles over to Officer Dobbins to be processed and entered into evidence. (Id. at 62--63.)

Plaintiff was taken into custody and booked into county jail. (Compl. ¶ 13.) Plaintiff was later arraigned on misdemeanor charges of possession of a knife on a university campus, see Cal. Penal Code § 626.10(b), and driving under the influence, see Cal. Veh. Code § 23152. (Compl. ¶ 14; Bulfer Dep. 100.) Plaintiff was also referred to the DMV for possible sanctions. (Compl. ¶ 14.) The criminal and administrative charges against Plaintiff were later dismissed. (Compl. ¶ 14; see also Bulfer Dep. 101; Bulfer Decl. ¶¶ 19--20.)

On June 9, 2009, Plaintiff filed this civil action against Defendants alleging violations of his Fourth Amendment rights, negligence, false arrest, and violation of California Civil Code section 52.1. (See Compl.) Defendants answered Plaintiff's complaint on September 11, 2009. (Doc. No. 3 (Answer).) On August 30, 2010, both parties moved for summary judgment. (Doc. Nos. 13, 14.)


Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 permits a court to grant summary judgment where (1) the moving party demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact and (2) entitlement to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). "Material," for purposes of Rule 56, means that the fact, under governing substantive law, 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). For a dispute to be "genuine," a reasonable jury must be able to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

The initial burden of establishing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact falls on the moving party. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. The movant can carry his 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 make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof." Id. at 322--23. "Disputes over irrelevant or unnecessary facts will not preclude a grant of summary judgment." T.W. Elec. Serv., Inc. v. Pac. 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 324. 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).


Plaintiff contends that he is entitled to summary judgment, as to liability only, on his federal claim for unlawful seizure and his state law claim for false arrest. (Doc. No. 13-1 (Pl.'s Mem. ISO MSJ), at 9--16.) Defendants, on the other hand, contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on all of Plaintiff's claims. (Doc. No. 14-1 (Defs.' Mem. ISO MSJ), at 6--24.) The Court addresses each claim in turn.

1. Federal Claim

Plaintiff's federal claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleges that Defendants violated his Fourth Amendment rights in three distinct ways. (See Compl. ¶¶ 15--21.) First, Plaintiff alleges that he was unlawfully seized without a warrant or probable cause. (Compl. ¶ 16.) Second, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants unlawfully searched his car. (Compl. ¶ 17.) Third, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants caused him to be falsely charged with criminal violations and subjected to possible DMV sanctions. (Compl. ¶ 18.)

A. Legal Standards

(1) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 42 U.S.C. § 1983 provides a cause of action against any person who, under color of state law, deprives another of any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Section 1983 is not a source of substantive rights but merely a method for vindicating federal rights established elsewhere. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393--94 (1989). To succeed on a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must show "(1) that a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States was violated, and (2) that the alleged violation was committed by a person acting under color of State law." Long v. Cnty. of L.A., 442 F.3d 1178, 1185 (9th Cir. 2006).

(2) Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity is a question of law. Johnson v. Cnty. of L.A., 340 F.3d 787, 791 (9th Cir. 2003); Nunez v. Davis, 169 F.3d 1222, 1229 (9th Cir. 2000). Its basic purpose is "to spare individual officials the burdens and uncertainties of standing trial in those instances where their conduct would strike an objective observer as falling within the range of reasonable judgment." Gooden v. Howard Cnty., 954 F.2d 960, 965 (4th Cir. 1992) (citing Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638 (1987)). "The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Pearson v. Callahan, - U.S. -, 129 S. Ct. 808, 815 (2009) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, (1982)). The test for determining whether a defendant enjoys qualified immunity has two prongs: (1) taken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right, and (2) was that constitutional right clearly established in the context faced by the defendant? Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001). If a plaintiff cannot make this showing, the official is entitled to qualified immunity. See Pearson, 129 S. Ct. at 818.

B. Unlawful Seizure

As to Plaintiff's unlawful seizure claim, the Court begins by determining whether Defendants, taking the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, violated Plaintiff's constitutional rights. Specifically, the Court must determine whether Defendants' "actions [were] 'objectively reasonable' in light of facts and circumstances confronting ...

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