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Adams v. Sotelo

United States District Court, S.D. California

May 22, 2017

JAMES ADAMS, Plaintiff,


          Hon. Thomas J. Whelan United States District Judge.

         Defendants California Department of Justice Special Agent Richard Sotelo and Special Agent Supervisor Ernesto Limon move to dismiss the Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiff opposes.

         The Court decides the matter on the papers submitted and without oral argument. See Civ. L.R. 7.1(d.1). For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Defendants' motion [Doc. 10] with regard to Defendant Limon as to the first cause of action, and GRANTS the motion as to Plaintiff's fourth cause of action for conversion. The Court DENIES Defendants' motion to dismiss all other causes of action.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff James Adams is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) Agent. (First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) [Doc. 3] ¶ 15.) Defendant Richard Sotelo is an agent with the California Department of Justice's (“DOJ”) Bureau of Firearms, and Defendant Ernest Limon is Sotelo's supervisor. (Id. ¶ 11.)

         Adams lived with his girlfriend, Mary Beltran, and her three children. (FAC ¶ 16.) On March 20, 2015, Adams, Ms. Beltran and her son, Roman, had an argument. (Id. ¶ 17.) Ms. Beltran called the police and Roman effected a citizen's arrest of Adams for battery. (Id. ¶¶17-18.) Adams was subsequently charged with battery under California Penal Code § 242. (Id. ¶ 19.)

         Roman later admitted that his statements to police were not true, that he was angry at the time, and did not realize how much trouble he could cause Mr. Adams. (FAC ¶ 20.) On June 8, 2015, he completed a form dropping the charges. (Id. ¶ 21.) At a hearing the same day, San Diego Superior Court Judge Matthew C. Braner issued an order specifying that there be “no negative contact” between Adams and the Beltrans (the “Order”), but the Judge allowed Adams to retain his service weapon and personal firearms. (Id. ¶¶ 23, 24.) Judge Braner also declined to issue a protective order or a restraining order against Adams. (Id. ¶¶ 25, 33.) Four days later, Ms. Beltran filled out a non-prosecution form. (Id. ¶ 22.)

         On July 13, 2015, Agent Sotelo received a referral from the DOJ's Armed Prohibited Persons System (“APPS”) identifying Adams as the subject of a domestic violence (“DV”) restraining order and corresponding prohibition of firearms and ammunition. (FAC ¶¶ 31, 32.) After receiving the referral, Sotelo visited Adams' home and spoke with Ms. Beltran. (Id. ¶ 35.) She informed Sotelo that there was no outstanding DV order against Adams, nor any prohibition on his firearms. (Id. ¶¶ 35, 41; Opp'n [Doc. 11] 3:12-13.)

         Later that evening, Agent Sotelo obtained a search warrant for Adams' residence from San Diego Superior Court Judge William Dato. (FAC ¶¶ 29, 30, 35.) Sotelo's sworn telephonic declaration stated that he received the APPS referral, which identified Adams as being prohibited from possessing firearms or ammunition, pursuant to a domestic violence restraining order. (Id. ¶¶ 31, 32.) Sotelo did not disclose his conversation with Ms. Beltran to Judge Dato. (Id. ¶¶ 29-33.)

         At approximately 3:00 a.m. the next morning, Sotelo, Supervisor Limon, and other unknown DOJ Agents executed the search warrant at Adams' home. (FAC ¶ 47.) Adams presented Sotelo with a copy of Judge Braner's Order and insisted that no restraining order existed; however, Adams alleges, “[d]espite seeing the document, Sotelo insisted on executing the warrant.” (Id. ¶¶ 42-44.) Adams also contends that Sotelo refused his requests to contact the prosecutor or the court to verify the information. (Id. ¶ 45.) Instead, Defendants detained Adams, Ms. Beltran and her children at gunpoint. (Id. ¶¶ 53-56.) Adams also alleges that Defendants aggressively handcuffed and detained him for approximately three hours until they transported him to the San Diego Central Jail, and that Defendants handcuffed Ms. Beltran for approximately one hour until Adams revealed the combination to his gun safe. (Id. ¶¶ 47, 49-54, 64-66, 69, 85-90.)

         On January 14, 2016, Adams filed an administrative claim with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board against Sotelo, Limon and others. (See Def.'s RJN [Doc. 10-2] Exhibit 1.) Presumably the claim was denied.

         On August 26, 2016, Adams filed this lawsuit against Defendants, the County of San Diego, the California DOJ, and Deputy District Attorney Myers, alleging that the warrant was obtained in violation of Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), and asserting claims for wrongful detention, refusal to return seized property and excessive force under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a state-law negligence claim. (Complaint [Doc. 1].) On September 19, 2016, Adams filed the FAC, removing all defendants except for Sotelo and Limon, and adding state-law conversion, battery, and Bane Act claims. Defendants now seek to dismiss the FAC arguing it fails to allege sufficient facts to support Adams' claims, and that qualified immunity applies to the Franks' violation and wrongful-detention claims. (P&A [Doc. 10-1].) Adams opposes the motion. (Opp'n [Doc. 11].)

         II. Legal Standard

         The Court must dismiss a cause of action for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. See Parks Sch. of Bus., Inc. v. Symington, 51 F.3d 1480, 1484 (9th Cir. 1995). A complaint may be dismissed as a matter of law either for lack of a cognizable legal theory or for insufficient facts under a cognizable theory. Balisteri v. Pacifica Police Dep't., 901 F.2d 696, 699 (9th Cir. 1990). In ruling on the motion, a court must “accept all material allegations of fact as true and construe the complaint in a light most favorable to the non-moving party.” Vasquez v. L.A. Cnty., 487 F.3d 1246, 1249 (9th Cir. 2007).

         A complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The Supreme Court has interpreted this rule to mean that “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007). The allegations in the complaint 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 Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         Well-pled allegations in the complaint are assumed true, but a court is not required to accept legal conclusions couched as facts, unwarranted deductions, or unreasonable inferences. See Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986); Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001).

         III. Discussion

         A. The FAC's factual allegations support a Franks' violation claim.

         Adams' first cause of action alleges a claim for violation of Franks v. Delaware, 438 U.S. 154 (1978), based on the contention that the search warrant was invalid because it was “obtained by the inclusion of false statements, known to be false, or made with reckless disregard….” (FAC ¶ 95.) Defendants dispute this contention, and argue the cause of action must be dismissed because Adams fails to “identify any statement by Sotelo that was not derived from the APPS database information he, or any other law enforcement officer, would rely upon….” (Opp'n. 8:7-9.)

         The central problem with Defendants' argument is it ignores the information Sotelo received from Ms. Beltran-one of the victims of Adams' alleged crime. The FAC alleges that before Sotelo obtained the search warrant, he talked to Ms. Beltran, who informed him that “there was no domestic violence order, and that Mr. Adams was not prohibited from possessing firearms.” (FAC ¶¶ 35, 41; Opp'n 3:12-13.) In applying for the search warrant later that evening, Sotelo failed to disclose this information to Judge Dato. (Id. ¶¶ 29-33.) Based on these facts, the issue is not-as Defendants suggest- whether the law required “some sort of ‘further investigation' before” Sotelo obtained the search warrant. Rather, the issue is whether Sotelo was obligated to provide Judge Dato with the information obtained from the alleged victim of the crime, which likely negated probable cause for the search warrant.

         “Prior to a search there is an obligation to bring to the attention of an issuing magistrate any change of circumstance based upon additional or corrective information known to government agents, if the new information could reasonably have affected the judicial officer's decision had it been made known to him before issuance of the warrant.” United States v. Morales, 568 F.Supp. 646, 649 (E.D.N.Y. 1983). For example, in U.S. v. Bowling, 900 F.2d 926 (6th Cir. 1990), while one group of officers was obtaining a warrant, a second group was waiting outside the defendants' home. At some point, defendants consented to a search by the second group of officers, which was performed hastily and revealed nothing incriminating. When the first group of officers later arrived with ...

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