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Smith-Downs v. City of Stockton

United States District Court, E.D. California

October 30, 2019

DIONNE SMITH-DOWNS et al., Plaintiffs,
CITY OF STOCKTON et al., Defendants.

          ORDER (ECF NOS. 149, 151, 152, 153, 154)


         Presently before the court are the plaintiffs' motion to bifurcate the trial between liability and damages phases (ECF No. 154) and the parties' respective motions in limine (ECF Nos. 149, 150-153). On October 28, 2019, the court conducted a hearing concerning the present motions. For the reasons stated herein, the court orders as follows.


         Plaintiffs move to bifurcate the trial between liability and damages. Defendants oppose, arguing that judicial economy would be served without bifurcation and that the liability and damages issues are intertwined.

         Pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 42(b), a court may order a separate trial of one or more separate issues for the sake of “convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize.” A court might bifurcate a trial to “avoid[] a difficult question by first dealing with an easier, dispositive issue, ” Danjaq LLC v. Sony Corp., 263 F.3d 942, 961 (9th Cir. 2001), or to avoid the risk of prejudice. See Quintanilla v. City of Downey, 84 F.3d 353, 356 (9th Cir. 1996). Further, “[i]t is clear that Rule 42(b) gives courts the authority to separate trials into liability and damage phases.” De Anda v. City of Long Beach, 7 F.3d 1418, 1421 (9th Cir. 1993).

         The court finds bifurcation is appropriate in this matter. While the court is mindful that that there is some potential overlap between evidence related to damages and evidence regarding plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment claims, the nature of the facts of this case and the threat of potential prejudice to plaintiffs strongly cautions towards bifurcation. The threat of prejudice is particularly conspicuous when the evidence consists of the prior bad acts or criminal history of a decedent. See Estate of Diaz v. City of Anaheim, 840 F.3d 592, 601 (9th Cir. 2016).

         During the liability phase of the trial, both parties will be permitted to present evidence regarding plaintiffs' relationship with decedent. As the plaintiffs bear the burden of proving a familial relationship to establish their rights for their Fourteenth Amendment claim, both parties will be permitted to introduce evidence relative thereto. However, given that much of the evidence the defendants seek to introduce will be quite prejudicial (the decedent's significant criminal history, for example), the court must weigh the probative value of such evidence against the prejudicial value. Therefore, in the liability phase of trial, defendants will not be permitted to offer evidence that is only tangentially related to plaintiffs' relationship to decedent or, even if somewhat probative, is overly prejudicial. For example, defendants are prevented from introducing evidence of decedent's alleged drug use, gang affiliation, and the details of decedent's criminal history. See Diaz, 840 F.3d at 601 (finding reversible error for trial court to deny motion to bifurcate, when evidence was introduced of decedent's drug use, gang affiliation, and criminal history).

         Should there be a damages phase of trial, the court will revisit these issues, and hear further argument from the parties regarding any additional evidence the parties seek to introduce regarding damages.


         1. PLAINTIFFS' MOTION IN LIMINE NO. 1. (ECF No. 151)

         Plaintiffs' first motion in limine seeks to exclude from the liability phase of trial 12 pieces of evidence unknown to defendant officers. Plaintiffs' motion is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

         As discussed at the hearing on this matter, plaintiffs must establish a familial relationship with decedent to submit a case under the Fourteenth Amendment. See Wheeler v. City of Santa Clara, 894 F.3d 1046, 1058 (9th Cir. 2018). Thus, although some of the evidence plaintiffs request be excluded was not known to defendants, and therefore has no value in determining whether the officers' use of force was reasonable, it is potentially probative to plaintiffs' relationships with decedent. The court rules on plaintiffs' requests as follows.

         Defendants are permitted to present evidence that decedent had been incarcerated but are not permitted to present evidence on the specifics of the decedent's criminal charges.

         Defendants are not permitted to present evidence regarding alleged crimes committed by decedent on June 3, 2010 and June 4, 2010.

         The court defers ruling on the admissibility of the wanted poster of decedent.

         Defendants are not permitted to present evidence of a robbery at gunpoint and report of vandalism on July 20, 2010, allegedly committed by decedent.

         Defendants are permitted to introduce evidence of allegations that decedent committed a carjacking with a shotgun on July 21, 2010.

         Defendants can present evidence that James Rivera Sr. was serving a prison sentence, but only to the extent the evidence is probative to the existence, or non-existence, of a familial relationship. Evidence regarding the crimes for which Mr. Rivera Sr. was serving sentence will not be admitted, nor will evidence that the sentence initially imposed was a life sentence.

         Defendants can present evidence that Dionne Smith-Downs temporarily ceded custody of ...

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