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J.N v. Hendrickson

United States District Court, C.D. California

June 12, 2017

J.N, Plaintiff,
v.
DET. HEATHER M. HENDRICKSON, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR REMITTITUR [DKT. 149]

          DEAN D. PREGERSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court is Defendant Heather M. Hendrickson's Motion for New Trial, or, in the Alternative, Request for Remittitur. After reviewing the parties' submissions and hearing oral argument, the Court adopts the following Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff J.N. filed the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights on the basis of judicial deception and malicious prosecution by Defendant Det. Heather Hendrickson. (See Third Amended Complaint.) The facts, as presented at trial, are as follows.

         In late March 2011, the Sacramento Police Department received a report from Nicole W. that her 12-year-old daughter, K.W., had been the victim of internet sex crimes. During the preceding months, K.W. had been contacted on Facebook by a man with the name "Pater Noster." Pater Noster spoke to K.W. through text and video chats. During these conversations, Pater Noster victimized K.W. by exposing himself, performing lewd acts while she was on a video chat, and encouraging her to undress for him on video.

         On approximately March 31, 2011, Det. Hendrickson was assigned to the case by the Sacramento Police Department. Det. Hendrickson began her investigation by searching for the name "Pater Noster" in a California mugshot database. Det. Hendrickson got one result from her search: a man named John Noster who had, at times, gone by the alias "John Pater." Based on this result, Det. Hendrickson prepared a "six-pack" -an array of six photographs, which included John Noster's photograph at position number three. Det. Hendrickson then conducted a video-recorded interview of K.W. During the interview, Det. Hendrickson asked K.W. about her encounters with Pater Noster. Det. Hendrickson then delivered a series of admonishments and proceeded to show K.W. the six-pack. Specifically, Det. Hendrickson said, "I think we found a picture of the guy who we think might be the person ... I want to show it to you and see if it is, okay?" She followed up by noting, "If the person that you saw is not in that series of photographs, then tell me, okay . . . We don't want to be going after the wrong guy. So if he's in there, excellent. If he's not, we need to know that too." K.W. proceeded to look at the photographs. She pointed at one picture and said, "He's too dark." K.W. then pointed at photograph number 3 (John Noster's photograph) and said, "He is too skinny, the guy I saw was much chunkier." After a few seconds, K.W. returned to photograph number 3 and said, "That kind of looks like him. . . . The rest of them don't even look close to him." Based on this statement, Det. Hendrickson directed K.W. to circle photograph number 3.

         After this interview, Det. Hendrickson spoke with an agent from Federal Bureau of Investigation, Special Agent Schofield. According Schofield, who testified at trial, Det. Hendrickson discussed Pater Noster's activities with the FBI and was told that the FBI would issue a subpoena to Facebook for Pater Noster's account information. At trial, Det. Hendrickson stated that she did not follow up with the FBI for the results of the subpoena and was not aware until approximately January or February 2012 that the subpoena results indicated that Pater Noster had logged into Facebook from a computer with an IP address originating in Vienna, Austria.

         Over the next few months, Det. Hendrickson continued the investigation by communicating with Pater Noster over Facebook using K.W.'s computer and account. She also reached out to the Los Angeles Police Department for assistance because her primary suspect, John Noster, lived in the Los Angeles area. In August 2011, Det. Hendrickson received word that the Los Angeles Police Department was prepared to assist in the case. Det. Hendrickson prepared a search and arrest warrant for John Noster, which she then presented to a judge. According to Plaintiff, the report Det. Hendrickson attached to the warrant application contained a number of inaccuracies and gave rise to his claims for judicial deception and malicious prosecution. First, the report omitted the fact that Det. Hendrickson may have tainted the six-pack identification by indicating to K.W. that she thought she "found a picture of the guy" before showing the photo array. Second, the report did not accurately reflect K.W.'s remarks during the photo identification. During the interview, K.W. affirmatively states that the man depicted in photograph number 3 "is too skinny" and only later says that "[he] kind of looks like him." By contrast, the report states that "Victim W. stated that # 3 (Suspect Noster) looked like the person she knew as "Pater." Third, Plaintiff argued that the report confusingly switched between the names "Pater Noster" and "Suspect Noster" in a manner that indicated Det. Hendrickson had actually communicated with John Noster (Suspect Noster) on Facebook rather than a man who used the name "Pater Noster" online. Fourth, the report did not indicate that Det. Hendrickson requested an IP lookup or report the results of the IP search, which would have shown that Pater Noster's computer IP address originated in Austria.

         The warrant was approved and, on August 17, 2011, Det. Hendrickson and LAPD executed the warrant and arrested Plaintiff while he was waiting outside his apartment for the bus to work. Plaintiff testified that he was confused and fearful during his arrest. Plaintiff remained in detention for approximately eight months. At his initial booking, Plaintiff recalls a person calling out to another officer that he was accused of raping a young child and that they should "beat the shit out of him." While detained, Plaintiff was held in protective custody because of his status as a suspected sex crime offender. During his time in jail, Plaintiff reported being assaulted by fellow inmates on four occasions because of the crimes he was accused of committing.

         While Plaintiff remained in custody, additional developments occurred in the case. In September 2011, a district attorney working on the case reached out to Det. Hendrickson to inquire about the strength of the case, noting there was reason to think this might be the wrong person. In October 2011, Det. Hendrickson learned that the computers seized from Plaintiff's home contained no evidence indicating he was Pater Noster. In December 2011, Plaintiff's defense counsel informed the district attorney's office that he had confirmed "Pater Noster" was still active on Facebook. During this time, the district attorney assigned to the case reached out to Det. Hendrickson indicating concerns about the strength of the case and requesting further updates but received no response. In January 2012, Plaintiff's defense counsel was able to view the recorded interview of KW. for the first time. He shared that video with the district attorney, raised concerns about the tainted identification, and asked for the charges to be dropped. In early February 2012, a live lineup was conducted, but KW. was unable to identify Plaintiff at the lineup. On February 15, 2012, the District Attorney dismissed the case for insufficient evidence. Due to Plaintiff's prior convictions, none of which were for sex crimes, he was transferred to federal custody and not actually released until April 3, 2012.

         During trial, defense counsel acknowledged a number of the key facts and that "mistakes were made" during the investigation. Nonetheless, counsel urged a defense verdict on the ground that the negligence in this case did not rise to the level of judicial deception or malicious prosecution. After a four-day trial, the jury returned a verdict finding Det. Hendrickson liable on both causes of action. The jury awarded $5, 000, 000 in compensatory damages and $5, 000 in punitive damages. (Dkts. 136, 138.) Judgment was entered on March 28, 2017. (Dkt. 143.)

         Defendant now moves for an order granting a new trial or, in the alternative, a remittitur of the jury's award for damages.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 governs motions for a new trial. Pursuant to Rule 59(a)(1), "[t]he court may, on motion, grant a new trial on all or some of the issues . . . after a jury trial, for any reason for which a new trial has heretofore been granted in an action at law in federal court." Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(a)(1)(A). Although Rule 59 does not enumerate specific grounds for a new trial, the Ninth Circuit has held that "'the trial court may grant a new trial only if the verdict is contrary to the clear weight of the evidence, is based upon false or perjurious evidence, or to prevent a miscarriage of justice.'" Molski v. M.J. Cable, Inc.,481 F.3d 724, 729 (9th Cir. 2007) (quoting Passantino v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Prods.,212 F.3d 493, 510 n.15 (9th Cir. 2000)) (brackets omitted). A miscarriage of justice can occur where there is prejudicial misconduct from opposing counsel or ...


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