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Guillory v. Hill

California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Third Division

January 16, 2015

LEROY GUILLORY et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,
v.
MICHELLE HILL, Defendant and Respondent.

[As Modification on February 10, 2015]

[CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION[*]]

Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of Orange County, No. 30-2008-00212410 Gail Andrea Andler, Judge.

Page 241

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

Eisenberg Law Firm and Mark W. Eisenberg for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

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Lynberg & Watkins, Norman J. Watkins, S. Frank Harrell and Scott D. Danforth for Defendant and Respondent.

OPINION

ARONSON, J.

LeRoy Guillory and 12 other plaintiffs appeal from the trial court’s entry of judgment after granting Orange County Sheriffs Department (OCSD) Investigator Michelle Hill’s motion for a directed verdict (Code Civ. Proc., § 630) at the close of evidence in a six-week trial on plaintiff’s civil rights claims.[1] (42 U.S.C. § 1983 (hereafter section 1983)). Plaintiffs consist primarily of Halloween partygoers who were swept up and detained as long as 14 hours in a predawn police raid on a mansion by dozens of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) officers in armored vehicles. The party, an annual event with hundreds of costumed attendees, had drawn neighbor complaints over the years. Based in part on a flyer advertising a “Casino Room” at the party, together with information a confidential informant provided and other intelligence Hill gathered, she obtained a warrant to search for evidence of illegal gaming at the mansion.

The search yielded two slot machines that the party host, Carl Vini Bergman, claimed were unplugged and inoperable, along with three grams of marijuana in a partygoer’s purse. After failing in his efforts to challenge the warrant in criminal proceedings, Bergman pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor counts of possessing prohibited gaming equipment. (Pen. Code, §§ 330a, 330b, 330.1.) In the course of the present civil litigation, several defendants including the various SWAT teams, unnamed “Doe” police officers, and County of Orange defendants dropped out, either by plaintiffs’ failure to name the “Doe” defendants or by settlement or summary adjudication - leaving only Hill.

Among other asserted civil rights violations, plaintiffs contend Hill violated their right to be free from unlawful seizure by prolonging their detention beyond the conclusion of the search of the residence. Hill questioned each of the plaintiffs before deciding they were free to go, but according to plaintiffs, the jury could infer the officers had concluded the search of the premises well before Hill began her interrogations and later released plaintiffs. Plaintiffs contend nothing justified their detention beyond the end of the search.

The trial court was persuaded by defense counsel’s arguments that (1) Hill’s questioning could be construed as part of the search of the premises;

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alternatively that (2) Hill was entitled to qualified immunity because no authority “clearly established” she needed independent justification for the questioning if the search had ended; and (3) discovery of the slot machines and marijuana independently furnished a basis under Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1 [20 L.Ed.2d 889, 88 S.Ct. 1868] to detain and question all the plaintiffs. As we explain in the published portion of this opinion, these justifications fail under clearly established law, and because as a factual matter a jury reasonably could conclude the search had ended before Hill’s questioning began, the trial court erred in granting the directed verdict. We therefore reverse the directed verdict as to plaintiffs’ section 1983 claims based on prolonged detention.

In the unpublished portion of the opinion, we affirm the trial court’s directed verdict on plaintiffs’ other constitutional claims under section 1983, including the SWAT team and other officers’ allegedly excessive force in entering and securing the premises, seizing two individuals near the premises but outside the scope of the warrant, searching two vehicles off the premises, restraining the detainees with excessive force before Hill questioned them, and damaging property during the search. As the trial court explained, “[I]n essence, plaintiffs sought to attach liability to Michele Hill for the acts of others and there was an insufficient factual showing, based on the applicable law, to sustain the claims against her.” We therefore affirm the judgment entered on the directed verdict as to those claims.

I

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In a minute order following the directed verdict, the trial court summarized the background pertinent to its ruling. The court noted that Hill, “a veteran of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, obtained a search warrant... to search the 21, 000 square foot home of plaintiff Vini Bergman, whom she knew to have a lengthy criminal history including numerous arrests for serious and violent felonies and a felony conviction for arson for which he spent time in prison. Her investigation also revealed that he had associations with members of the Hells’ Angels and Mongols outlaw motorcycle gangs, and that he was planning to have a large party at his home in the hills of Santa Ana which was advertised as featuring a casino room and for which some attendees would be charged for admission. She also obtained the search warrant based on information from a confidential informant, and portions of the affidavit of probable cause were ordered sealed by the judge. The primary objective of the search warrant was to search for and seize evidence of illegal gaming.

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“As the designated Case Agent, Investigator Hill conferred with her supervisor, and, pursuant to department policy, contacted SWAT to see if they would agree to assist in the service of the warrant. SWAT agreed that the warrant was properly classified as ‘high-risk’ based on the criminal history and associations of Mr. Bergman and the other factors related by Investigator Hill. The decision of whether SWAT would be utilized, and the tactics to be employed by SWAT, were ultimately made by SWAT. [¶]... [¶]

“The party took place, and at certain points during the evening swelled to 1000 people in attendance. People attending the Halloween Party were in costume and they congregated both inside and outside the home, as shuttles brought attendees up the hill.... The officers who were assigned to participate in the search warrant assembled at a local high school. The original [police] Game Plan called for the use of undercover officers to infiltrate the party in costume, but that plan was abandoned due to the difficulty faced by the undercover officers in getting to the residence due to logistics with shuttles and crowds.

“In the early morning hours, sometime between 4:00 am and 5:00 am, a caravan of SWAT officers, including armored vehicles, approached the residence with the investigative team following behind up the hill. A total of 100 SWAT officers entered the residence, in teams, to secure the residence, dressed in black or dark green with helmets, balaclava face masks, and weapons. Some of the more than twenty people still inside the residence were sleeping in the various bedrooms, others were on lower levels of the three story house cleaning up from the party.

“SWAT officers forcibly pulled occupants from beds and took others to the ground, using zip ties to restrain their hands behind their backs. The occupants did not initially realize that the persons entering the house were members of SWAT and some thought they were in danger of being robbed or ...


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