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Head v. County of Sacramento

United States District Court, E.D. California

December 16, 2019

CHARLES HEAD, Plaintiff,
COUNTY OF SACRAMENTO, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff is a state prisoner proceeding pro se and seeking relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This proceeding was referred to this court by Local Rule 302 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and plaintiff has consented to have all matters in this action before a United States Magistrate Judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         Plaintiff requests leave to proceed in forma pauperis. Because plaintiff has submitted a declaration that makes the showing required by 28 U.S.C. § 1915(a), his request will be granted. Plaintiff is required to pay the statutory filing fee of $350.00 for this action. 28 U.S.C. §§ 1914(a), 1915(b)(1). By separate order, the court will direct the appropriate agency to collect the initial partial filing fee from plaintiff's trust account and forward it to the Clerk of the Court. Thereafter, plaintiff will be obligated for monthly payments of twenty percent of the preceding month's income credited to plaintiff's prison trust account. These payments will be forwarded by the appropriate agency to the Clerk of the Court each time the amount in plaintiff's account exceeds $10.00, until the filing fee is paid in full. 28 U.S.C. § 1915(b)(2).

         I. Screening Requirement

         The court is required to screen complaints brought by prisoners seeking relief against a governmental entity or officer or employee of a governmental entity. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a). The court must dismiss a complaint or portion thereof if the prisoner has raised claims that are legally “frivolous or malicious, ” that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or that seek monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief. 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b)(1), (2).

         A claim is legally frivolous when it lacks an arguable basis either in law or in fact. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 325 (1989); Franklin v. Murphy, 745 F.2d 1221, 1227-28 (9th Cir. 1984). The court may, therefore, dismiss a claim as frivolous where it is based on an indisputably meritless legal theory or where the factual contentions are clearly baseless. Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327. The critical inquiry is whether a constitutional claim, however inartfully pleaded, has an arguable legal and factual basis. See Jackson v. Arizona, 885 F.2d 639, 640 (9th Cir. 1989); Franklin, 745 F.2d at 1227.

         In order to avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim a complaint must contain more than “naked assertions, ” “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-557 (2007). In other words, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Furthermore, a claim upon which the court can grant relief has facial plausibility. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. When considering whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court must accept the allegations as true, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007), and construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, see Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974).

         II. Allegations in the Complaint

         Plaintiff, who is currently incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland, brings this suit against Sacramento County Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Shelton and Assistant United States Attorney Ellen Endrizzi for asserted violations of his constitutional rights while he was a federal pretrial detainee at the Sacramento County Main Jail in 2009. He seeks damages and declaratory and injunctive relief.

         Specifically, plaintiff alleges that defendant Shelton provided defendant Endrizzi with his attorney-client privileged communications including his jail phone calls, copies of his mail and social media all without a warrant. ECF No. 1 at 4-5. Defendant Endrizzi then used these materials to “plaintiff's detriment” including during a bail hearing in his federal criminal prosecution in two separate cases in which he was ultimately convicted. ECF No. 1 at 5, 11-12; see also United States v. Charles Head, et al., No. 2:08-cr-00093-KJM-AC (E.D. Cal.); United States v. Charles Head, et al., No. 2:08-cr-00116-KJM-AC (E.D. Cal.).[1] Plaintiff also alleges that defendant Shelton conducted multiple cell searches in retaliation for plaintiff's 2009 grievances about his mail being delayed or not delivered at all to his attorney. ECF No. 1 at 7-8. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Shelton seized his “personal mail, legal notes, journal records, and other papers” from his jail cell during these searches without providing him with a property receipt in violation of state regulations. ECF No. 1 at 9. According to plaintiff, these combined actions by defendants constitute a civil conspiracy to violate his constitutional rights. ECF No. 1 at 13.

         III. Legal Standards

         Standing alone, attorney-client privilege is merely a rule of evidence and not a freestanding constitutional right. Partington v. Gedan, 961 F.2d 852, 863 (9th Cir. 1992) (citing Clutchette v. Rushen, 770 F.2d 1469, 1471 (9th Cir. 1985)) (quotation marks omitted). The Supreme Court has held that governmental intrusion into the attorney-client privilege is not sufficient by itself to constitute a Sixth Amendment violation. Weatherford v. Bursey, 429 U.S. 545, 558 (1977). Thus, violation of the attorney-client privilege implicates the Sixth Amendment right to counsel only when the intrusion substantially prejudices the defendant. See United States v. Irwin, 612 F.2d 1182, 1186 (9th Cir. 1980); Partington, 961 F.2d at 863 (quotation marks omitted). Prejudice occurs when “evidence gained through the interference is used against the defendant at trial, ” or results “from the prosecution's use of confidential information pertaining to the defense plans and strategy, from government influence which destroys the defendant's confidence in his attorney, and from other actions designed to give the prosecution an unfair advantage at trial.” Irwin, 612 F.2d at 1186-87.

         Establishing prejudice resulting from a violation of the attorney-client privilege creates an additional difficulty when such claim is presented in a federal civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. If plaintiff claims that he was prejudiced because his criminal defense was compromised by the unlawful seizure of his attorney-client correspondence, any Sixth Amendment claim would be barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 486 (1994), for it would amount to a collateral attack on plaintiff's federal convictions. Valdez v. Rosenbaum, 302 F.3d 1039, 1049 (9th Cir. 2002) (finding a Sixth Amendment challenge by a federal pretrial detainee to a local jail requirement that ad seg inmates obtain written permission from jail staff to call their attorneys was barred by Heck). “The problem for plaintiff, however, is that if made this showing of prejudice would show that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel in his criminal trial, and thus call into question the validity of his underlying conviction.” Horacek v. Seaman, 2009 WL 2928546, at *10 (E.D. Mich. Sept. 10, 2009). In other words, plaintiff's claim is not cognizable via a § 1983 action. Either the illegal seizure of his attorney-client materials harmed his criminal defense, in which case the Heck bar would foreclose this action, or it caused no such harm, in which case no Sixth Amendment claim exists.

         To the extent that plaintiff names a federal prosecutor as a defendant in this civil action, prosecutors are absolutely immune from civil suits for damages under § 1983 which challenge activities related to the initiation and presentation of criminal prosecutions. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409 (1976). Determining whether a prosecutor's actions are immunized requires a functional analysis. The classification of the challenged acts, not the motivation underlying them, determines whether absolute immunity applies. Ashelman v. Pope, 793 F.2d 1072 (9th Cir. 1986) (en banc). The prosecutor's quasi-judicial functions, rather than administrative or investigative functions, are absolutely immune. Thus, even charges of malicious prosecution, falsification ...

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