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Wright v. City of Santa Cruz

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 3, 2014

HALEY WRIGHT, EMILY WRIGHT, and JESSICA WRIGHT, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF SANTA CRUZ, COUNTY OF SANTA CRUZ, MARK YANEZ, TATE HOWE, KENNY BESK, ANTHONY PARKER, BRENDAN OMORI, JOHN FERNANDEZ, DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION, JOSHUA SINGLETON, and TWENTY UNKNOWN FEDERAL, CITY, and COUNTY INDIVIDUALS and AGENCIES, Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING THE UNITED STATES' MOTION TO DISMISS; AND DENYING THE INDIVIDUAL FEDERAL AGENTS' MOTION TO DISMISS [RE: ECF NOS. 49, 50]

BETH LABSON FREEMAN, District Judge.

This action arises out of law enforcement officers' mistaken identification of Plaintiff Haley Wright as a member of a Mexican drug cartel. A SWAT team entered Haley's home, pointed weapons at her and her family, arrested her, and held her in jail for thirty days before determining that a mistake had been made. Haley and her sisters, Emily and Jessica Wright (collectively, "Plaintiffs")[1], sue city, county, and federal agencies and officers who were involved in the incident.

The United States moves to dismiss the operative first amended complaint ("FAC") under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a clam upon which relief may be granted, arguing that Plaintiffs did not exhaust administrative remedies under the Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA") before filing suit. Four individual members of the Drug Enforcement Administration ("DEA") Joint Task Force that was investigating the cartel ("Individual Federal Agents")[2] move to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(5)[3] for failure to effect timely service of process.

The Court has considered the briefing and the oral argument that was presented at the hearing on June 26, 2014. For the reasons discussed below, the United States' motion is GRANTED and the Individual Federal Agents' motion is DENIED.

I. BACKGROUND

The FAC alleges that in 2011, the DEA was involved in a joint operation with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office and the Santa Cruz Police Department to arrest individuals who were members of a large Mexican drug cartel. (FAC ¶¶ 1-2, ECF 11) The name "Haley" was mentioned as a person who was a member of the cartel. ( Id. ¶ 1) One of the officers involved in the operation knew that Plaintiff Haley Wright had been arrested several years earlier on a charge of being under the influence. ( Id. ) Defendants immediately obtained an indictment and an arrest warrant against Plaintiff Haley Wright without conducting any investigation or attempting to confirm that she was the "Haley" connected to the cartel. ( Id. ¶¶ 1, 25) In fact, the DEA had multiple surveillance photographs of the "Haley" in question, who did not look like anything like Plaintiff Haley Wright. ( Id. ¶ 1)

Defendants executed the arrest warrant against Plaintiff Haley Wright at 8:00 a.m. on September 12, 2011. (FAC ¶¶ 2, 17) Approximately twenty officers, many wearing full desert camouflage and/or SWAT gear, approached the home where Haley lived with her parents, her two sisters, and her sisters' infant children. ( Id. ) Haley's father opened the front door and was detained at gunpoint by some members of the team while others entered the home and located the bedrooms of Haley, Emily, and Jessica. ( Id. ¶¶ 17-21) Officers entered the three bedrooms with weapons drawn; searched the crib of Emily's infant child while the child was present in the crib; forced Emily and Jessica to leave their infant children (ages six months and eight months) unattended; and pointed weapons at Haley's dog, frightening Haley into thinking that they were going to shoot the dog. ( Id. )

Defendants handcuffed Haley and walked her out to the street in full view of friends and neighbors. (FAC ¶ 23) She was placed in a van containing other women who clearly knew each other and who did not know Haley. ( Id. ¶ 24) Haley was booked and placed in a jail cell with another woman. ( Id. ¶ 26) She was held without bail initially, and then she was held on an extremely high bail. ( Id. ¶¶ 30-31) Haley repeatedly told law enforcement officers and jail personnel that they had the wrong person, but she was ignored. ( Id. ¶¶ 27-29, 32-34) One of the other women arrested in connection with the cartel told Haley about a "Hallie" that sounded like the person the law enforcement officers were seeking. ( Id. ¶ 34) Haley learned that there were photographs of the other "Haley" or "Hallie." ( Id. ) Haley asked Defendants to look at the photographs, but Defendants refused to do so. ( Id. )

Haley remained in jail for one month; finally, on October 12, 2011, her bail was lowered to $20, 000, and her family was able to get her released on bail. (FAC ¶ 38) The charges against her were dropped on November 15, 2011, approximately two months after her arrest and one month after her release from jail. ( Id. ¶¶ 39-40) Haley lost her job while she was in jail, and her employer refused to rehire her because of the charges that had been brought against her. ( Id. ¶ 41) Haley moved away from home for fear that the drug cartel might pose a danger to her family. ( Id. ¶ 42)

Haley, Emily, and Jessica filed this action on March 19, 2013, and they filed the operative FAC on July 24, 2013. (Compl., ECF 1; FAC, ECF 11) Plaintiffs sue the City of Santa Cruz, the County of Santa Cruz, the DEA, and individual law enforcement officers, asserting four claims under Section 1983[4]: (1) excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution; (2) unlawful search and seizure and false imprisonment in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments; (3) deprivation of due process (right to liberty) in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; and (4) deprivation of right to freedom of movement in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiffs also allege a fifth claim under California Civil Code § 52.1 for interference with rights secured by the United States Constitution and the laws of the State of California.

Santa Cruz County answered the FAC on January 29, 2014. (Answer, ECF 42) The City of Santa Cruz answered on February 5, 2014 after the Court denied its Motion to Dismiss. (Answer, ECF 45) On February 7, 2014, the United States filed a Notice of Substitution of United States of America in Place of Defendant Drug Enforcement Administration.[5] The United States and the Individual Federal Agents now move to dismiss the action, the United States for failure to state a claim and the Individual Federal Agents for failure to effect timely service of process. (Mots., ECF 49, 50) Plaintiffs opposed the motions on May 7, 2014, and Defendants replied on May 20, 2014 and May 21, 2014. (Opps., ECF 58, 59; Replies, ECF 62, 63) A hearing was held on June 26, 2014.

II. UNITED STATES' MOTION TO DISMISS UNDER RULE 12(b)(6)

A. Legal Standards

"A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted tests the legal sufficiency of a claim.'" Conservation Force v. Salazar, 646 F.3d 1240, 1241-42 (9th Cir. 2011) (quoting Navarro v. Block, 250 F.3d 729, 732 (9th Cir. 2001)). When determining whether a claim has been stated, the Court accepts as true all well-pled factual allegations and construes them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Reese v. BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., 643 F.3d 681, 690 (9th Cir. 2011). However, the Court need not "accept as true allegations that contradict matters properly subject to judicial notice" or "allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences." In re Gilead Scis. Sec. Litig., 536 F.3d 1049, 1055 (9th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). While a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when it "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.

B. Analysis

"The United States, as sovereign, can only be sued to the extent it has waived its sovereign immunity." Vacek v. United States Postal Service, 447 F.3d 1248, 1250 (9th Cir. 2006). As relevant here, the FTCA waives the United States' sovereign immunity for certain torts committed by federal employees "under circumstances where the United States, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the law of the place where the act or omission occurred." 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1). "The law of the place' in § 1346(b) has been construed to refer to the law of the state where the act or omission occurred." Delta Savings Bank v. United ...


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