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Gonzalez-Chavez v. City of Bakersfield

United States District Court, E.D. California

February 2, 2015

CITY OF BAKERSFIELD, et al., Defendants.


JENNIFER L. THURSTON, Magistrate Judge.

I. Background

The complaint alleges that on December 4, 2011, at 3:15 a.m., Bakersfield Police Officers, Messick and Barthelemes confronted Plaintiff who was sitting in a friend's car in a WalMart parking lot. (Doc. 1 at 4) The complaint alleges the officers forcibly removed Plaintiff from the vehicle, "hit him with weapons and/or punches about his arms, legs, face and body, and [they] tase[d] him without cause, provocation or justification." Id. at 4-5. Plaintiff claims he suffered injuries including a fractured knee. Id. at 5. Based upon these allegations, Plaintiff brings claims under 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983 against the officers for the use of excessive force.[1]

II. Legal Standards Governing Motions in Limine

"Although the Federal Rules of Evidence do not explicitly authorize in limine rulings, the practice has developed pursuant to the district court's inherent authority to manage the course of trials." Luce v. United States, 469 U.S. 38, 40 n. 2 (1984). The Ninth Circuit explained motions in limine "allow parties to resolve evidentiary disputes ahead of trial, without first having to present potentially prejudicial evidence in front of a jury." Brodit v. Cabra, 350 F.3d 985, 1004-05 (9th Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).

Importantly, motions in limine seeking the exclusion of broad categories of evidence are disfavored. See Sperberg v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., 519 F.2d 708, 712 (6th Cir. 1975). The Court "is almost always better situated during the actual trial to assess the value and utility of evidence." Wilkins v. Kmart Corp., 487 F.Supp.2d 1216, 1218 (D. Kan. 2007). The Sixth Circuit explained, "[A] better practice is to deal with questions of admissibility of evidence as they arise [in trial]" as opposed to ruling on a motion in limine. Sperberg, 519 F.2d at 712. Nevertheless, motions in limine are "an important tool available to the trial judge to ensure the expeditious and evenhanded management of the trial proceedings." Jonasson v. Lutheran Child & Family Services, 115 F.3d 436, 440 (7th Cir. 1997).

"[A] motion in limine should not be used to resolve factual disputes or weigh evidence, " C & E Services, Inc. v. Ashland Inc., 539 F.Supp.2d 316, 323 (D. D.C. 2008), because that is the province of the jury. See Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000).

III. Plaintiff's Motions in Limine

A. Plaintiff's Motion in Limine #1 to exclude evidence of what occurred before Defendants arrived at the scene

Plaintiff seeks to preclude Defendants from introducing evidence of what occurred before the officers arrived at the scene. (Doc. 44 at 1) In particular, Plaintiff seeks to exclude evidence of a fight and anti-gay slurs and any other circumstances of which the officers were unaware. Id. at 2-3.

Defendants argue that this evidence is admissible for several reasons. First, they argue that the evidence is pertinent to explain Plaintiff's state of mind and to explain the need for the offices to use force based upon his aggressive and belligerent state and Plaintiff' motive for resisting arrest. (Doc. 51 at 3) Defendants rely upon Tierney v. Davidson, 133 F.3d 189 (2d Cir. 1998), for the proposition that the evidence should not be excluded. In Tierney, the officer had been told that a "bad" domestic dispute was occurring at the time he was dispatched and had been told that the shouting had stopped just before they arrived. Id. at 197. Then, as he approached the house, the officer saw a broken window pane and he concluded that both participants in the fight were present in the house. Id.

Here, review of the deposition of Barthelmes indicates that when the officers were dispatched, they were told a "large fight involving several subjects" was occurring at the scene. (Barthlemes Depo at 36.) Before they approached Plaintiff, they learned additional information from other officers including that a person ran from the police as they arrived and that a Hispanic person with a shaved head struck someone else on the head with a pipe. Id. at 54-55. They learned also that the Hispanic person with a shaved head was in a silver car in a different area of the parking lot where the fight occurred. Id . Finally, Barthelmes was told that Plaintiff (the person seated behind the driver) was the person who committed the assault. Id. at 67. Barthelmes also made observations before the scuffle including that in the car was an open beer can and open beer bottle and that he "reek[ed]" of alcohol. Id. at 71-72, 103. Likewise, he observed Plaintiff's demeanor and heard his refusal to comply with orders to exit the car. Id. at 68-73.

Officers' conduct is evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene regardless of the actual motivation of the particular officers. Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989). Thus, if an officer reasonably would have known about events that occurred before the officer arrived at the scene, the evidence may be introduced. Thus, to this extent the motion is DENIED and the officers may testify as to all of the information that would have been reasonably known to an officer on the scene.

On the other hand, Defendants argue they should be permitted to introduce evidence of what transpired before the dispatch was made and, indeed, before any events which gave rise to a call to the police. In particular they assert that before the events at the WalMart parking lot, Plaintiff and three friends were in the silver car across the street at a gas station where a taco catering truck was parked. Defendants argue that the events of the evening were instigated by an exchange between Plaintiff's group and another group-against whom the fight ultimately was waged-and a young woman and a young homosexual man. Defendants argue that members of Plaintiff's group tell a vastly different account of what transpired at the taco truck than those with whom they fought. Defendants contend they should be permitted to introduce evidence of the pre-fight events to impeach Plaintiff and his witnesses' given Defendants' claim their accounts vary from each other's and from their opponents of that evening. Defendants argue this evidence is relevant to attack their credibility and/or their ability to perceive-based upon the argument that the members of Plaintiff's group were intoxicated.

Federal Rules of Evidence 608 permits an opponent to attack a witness' credibility with specific instances of conduct but precludes the examiner from introducing extrinsic evidence of collateral matters[2] except where the witness has given a prior inconsistent statement. Fed.R.Evid. 613(b); United States v. Higa, 55 F.3d 448, 452 (9th Cir. 1995). A matter is collateral if it could be introduced even if it lacked its impeaching character. Higa, at 452.

Here, whether Plaintiff and his friends were the instigators of the fight does not impact whether the officers used reasonable force when they encountered Plaintiff. Therefore, the events at the taco truck are collateral to the claims raised by this litigation. As a result, the Court holds that Defendants may impeach Plaintiff and the witnesses with their prior inconsistent statements if they testify differently at trial. Likewise, though Defendants may ask questions about what occurred at the taco truck, they are precluded from introducing extrinsic evidence to contradict the witnesses' testimony about what occurred at the taco truck.

Finally, assuming the events at the taco truck are relevant to demonstrate Plaintiff and his witnesses were so intoxicated as to be unable to adequately recall the events of the evening, the Court would preclude the introduction of this evidence under Fed.R.Civ.P. 403, because the probative value of this evidence is outweighed by the likelihood of confusing the jury that it must determine what actually occurred at the taco truck and wasting time. Therefore, the motion is GRANTED in PART and DENIED in PART.

B. Plaintiff's Motion in Limine #2 to exclude evidence of alcohol containers in the vehicle including photos of the containers

Plaintiff seeks to exclude evidence that there were alcoholic beverage containers in the vehicle. Plaintiff argues that there is no dispute that he was intoxicated at the time of his contact with the police and, as a result, argues that this evidence is not probative of any disputed issue. (Doc. 44 at6-7) Likewise, Plaintiff argues that because there is no evidence that he attempted to use the beer bottle as a weapon, evidence ...

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