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Preston Hill v. Clovis Police Department

November 18, 2011

PRESTON HILL,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
CLOVIS POLICE DEPARTMENT, MARK BRADFORD (BADGE #5465), INDIVIDUALLY AND AS AN OFFICER OF THE CLOVIS POLICE DEPARTMENT,
OFFICE OF THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY FRESNO COUNTY, ELIZABETH EGAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DISTRICT ATTORNEY, AND ELANA ARON SMITH INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DEPUTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY, DEFENDANTS.



ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS (Doc. No. 8)

This case stems from the criminal investigation and prosecution of Preston Hill ("Hill") by Clovis Police Officer Mark Bradford ("Bradford"), Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan, and Fresno County Deputy District Attorney Elana Smith ("Smith"). Hill brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for malicious prosecution and under state law for malicious prosecution and defamation. Bradford and the Clovis Police Department (collectively "Clovis Defendants") move to dismiss the claims against them. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted.

BACKGROUND

From the Complaint, in the summer of 2010, Hill was a student and member of the wrestling team at Buchanan High School in Clovis, California. At some point in 2010, Hill wrestled fellow Buchanan High student Ross Rice at a scrimmage. After Hill and Rice had wrestled, Rice made an allegation against Hill. Rice alleged that Hill assaulted him while they were wrestling. Specifically, Rice alleged that Hill had penetrated Rice's anus with two fingers.

On July 15, 2010, Bradford extensively questioned Hill regarding Rice's allegations. Hill was completely cooperative and maintained his absolute innocence. In addition to questioning Hill on July 15, the Complaint alleges that Bradford acted recklessly, intentionally, and maliciously towards Hill. Among other things, Bradford: (1) failed to question numerous witnesses (such as coaches and parents) who witnessed the scrimmage, saw Rice's jubilant demeanor, and disputed that a sexual battery of any kind occurred; (2) procured Hill's statements without contacting Hill's parents or advising Hill of Miranda Rights; (3) failed to disclose his positive assessment of Hill's demeanor; (4) maliciously predetermined that a crime occurred before speaking to Hill, and wrote his report accordingly; (5) ignored the elements of sexual battery by restraint in relation to the facts of the case; and (6) ignored multiple pieces of exculpatory evidence. See Complaint at ¶¶ 16, 41.

On August 25, 2010, all of the Defendants maliciously instituted juvenile criminal proceedings against Hill without probable cause. Defendants charged Hill with the crime of sexual battery by restraint. At Bradford's request, the juvenile wardship petition was signed by Smith and also listed Egan as a party to the petition. However, the juvenile proceeding was subsequently withdrawn and terminated entirely in Hill's favor. Thus, Hill obtained complete exoneration from the charge against him.

LEGAL FRAMEWORK

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a claim may be dismissed because of the plaintiff's "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). A dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on the lack of a cognizable legal theory or on the absence of sufficient facts alleged under a cognizable legal theory. Johnson v. Riverside Healthcare Sys., 534 F.3d 1116, 1121 (9th Cir. 2008); Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001). In reviewing a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), all allegations of material fact are taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Marceau v. Blackfeet Hous. Auth., 540 F.3d 916, 919 (9th Cir. 2008); Vignolo v. Miller, 120 F.3d 1075, 1077 (9th Cir. 1999). However, the Court is not required "to accept as true allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences." In re Gilead Scis. Sec. Litig., 536 F.3d 1049, 1056-57 (9th Cir. 2008); Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001). To "avoid a Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009); see Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. The Ninth Circuit has distilled the following principles from Iqbal and Twombly:

First, to be entitled to the presumption of truth, allegations in a complaint or counterclaim may not simply recite the elements of a cause of action, but must contain sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give fair notice and to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively. Second, the factual allegations that are taken as true must plausibly suggest an entitlement to relief, such that it is not unfair to require the opposing party to be subjected to the expense of discovery and continued litigation.

Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. Cal. 2011). If a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is granted, "[the] district court should grant leave to amend even if no request to amend the pleading was made, unless it determines that the pleading could not possibly be cured by the allegation of other facts." Lopez v. Smith, 203 F.3d 1122, 1127 (9th Cir. 2000) (en banc). That is, leave to amend need not be granted where amendment would be futile. Gompper v. VISX, Inc., 298 F.3d 893, 898 (9th Cir. 2002).

DEFENDANT'S MOTION

1. First Cause of Action -- 42 U.S.C. § 1983 -- Malicious Prosecution Defendant's Argument

Defendants argue that dismissal of this claim is appropriate for two reasons. First, liability against Bradford was cut off when the District Attorney filed criminal charges based on her independent review of the evidence. Second, Bradford is entitled to qualified immunity. Hill has failed to show that there is a clearly established constitutional right at issue. There are no cases cited that indicate that a person has a right to attend the high school of his choice, or that when a prosecution is voluntarily dismissed by the entity that filed the prosecution that the person then has a due process or equal protection claim. Finally, the Supreme Court has recognized that police officers have a defense of good faith and probable cause in a § 1983 cause of action. Here, Bradford investigated an allegation of a sexual battery that took place during a wrestling match, took statements from the parties involved, and then took his recommendation to the District Attorney.

Plaintiff's Opposition

Hill argues that the district attorney's decision to file criminal charges does not "cut off" Bradford's liability because Bradford acted in bad faith and omitted or concealed exculpatory evidence. Hill also argues that Bradford is not entitled to qualified immunity. Hill states that the right to be free from criminal prosecution without probable cause is long established, and the right to a public education is a fundamental right under the California and United States Constitutions. Finally, the allegations in the complaint show that Bradford did not act in good faith and with probable cause.

Legal Standards

Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a "criminal defendant may maintain a malicious prosecution claim not only against prosecutors but also against others-including police officers and investigators-who wrongfully caused his prosecution." Smith v. Almada, 640 F.3d 931, 938 (9th Cir. 2011); see Awabdy v. City of Adelanto, 368 F.3d 1062, 1066 (9th Cir. 2004). To maintain a § 1983 action for malicious prosecution, a "plaintiff must show that the defendants prosecuted her with malice and without probable cause, and that they did so for the purpose of denying her a specific constitutional right." Smith, 640 F.3d at 938; Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 1066. Probable cause is an absolute defense to a § 1983 malicious prosecution claim. Lassiter v. City of Bremerton, 556 F.3d 1049, 1054-55 (9th Cir. 2009); Smith, 640 F.3d at 938. The specific constitutional right at issue may include, but is not limited to, a right secured by the Fourth Amendment. See Awabdy, 368 F.3d at 1069-70. However, there is no Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to be free from prosecution without probable cause. Id. at 1069.

Discussion

As an initial matter, Bradford's argument concerning independent review by the District Attorney is not well taken. Bradford is correct that, generally, "where police officers do not act maliciously or with reckless disregard for the rights of an arrested person, they are not liable for damages suffered by the arrested person after a district attorney files charges unless the presumption of independent judgment by the district attorney is rebutted." Blankenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463, 482 (9th Cir. 2007); Smiddy v. Varney, 665 F.2d 261, 267 (9th Cir. 1981). A plaintiff may rebut the presumption of independent judgment in a number of ways including, but not limited to, showing that the officer omitted relevant information from his reports, applied inappropriate pressure on the district attorney to file charges, knowingly included false information in his reports, or acted maliciously towards the plaintiff. See Harper v. City of L.A., 533 F.3d 1010, 1028 (9th Cir. 2008); Beck v. City of Upland, 527 F.3d 853, 862-63 (9th Cir. 2008); Smiddy, 665 F.2d at 266-67. Here, the Complaint alleges that Bradford acted with malice and with reckless disregard for Hill's rights, omitted information from his report, wrote his report so as to be as close to the elements of a crime as possible despite awareness of substantial exculpatory evidence, and ignored the elements of sexual battery by restraint. See Complaint at ¶ 16. These allegations tend to rebut the presumption of independent judgment. For purposes of this motion, the Court cannot hold that Hill's damages were cut off when the District Attorney filed charges.

As to other arguments, for ยง 1983 malicious prosecution claims, there must be allegations that a defendant acted for the purpose of denying a specific constitutional right. Smith, 640 F.3d at 938. The Complaint states the Defendants' actions were undertaken with the purpose of depriving Hill of his Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process, equal protection, and the right to an education. ...


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