Judge: Helen Zukin, Case: 19STCV40541, Date: 2023-02-22 Tentative Ruling



Case Number: 19STCV40541    Hearing Date: February 22, 2023    Dept: 207

Background

 

This case arises from allegedly false statements which led to Plaintiff Stephen Winick’s (“Plaintiff”) arrest on July 20, 2018. Plaintiff filed his operative Second Amended Complaint on February 5, 2021, alleging causes of action for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and negligence against several defendants. As to Defendant Officer Alfredo Flores (“Defendant Flores”), Defendant Officer Adam Hale (“Defendant Hale”) and Defendant City of Los Angeles (collectively with Defendants Flores and Hale, “Defendants”), Plaintiff alleges only one cause of false imprisonment, stemming from Defendants Flores and Hale’s arrest of Plaintiff for criminal threats pursuant to Penal Code § 422.

 

Defendants now move for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s claim for false imprisonment, arguing Plaintiff cannot succeed on his cause of action because a different Court has already determined the arrest was made with probable cause. Plaintiff opposes the motion.

 

Summary Judgment Standard

 

Motions for summary judgment are governed by Code Civ. Proc. § 437c, which allows a party to “move for summary judgment in an action or proceeding if it is contended that the action has no merit or that there is no defense to the action or proceeding.” (C.C.P. § 437c(a)(1).) The function of a motion for summary judgment or adjudication is to allow a determination as to whether an opposing party cannot show evidentiary support for a pleading or claim and to enable an order of summary dismissal without the need for trial. (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843.) Code Civ. Proc. § 437c(c) “requires the trial judge to grant summary judgment if all the evidence submitted, and ‘all inferences reasonably deducible from the evidence’ and uncontradicted by other inferences or evidence, show that there is no triable issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” (Adler v. Manor Healthcare Corp. (1992) 7 Cal.App.4th 1110, 1119.) “The function of the pleadings in a motion for summary judgment is to delimit the scope of the issues; the function of the affidavits or declarations is to disclose whether there is any triable issue of fact within the issues delimited by the pleadings.” (Juge v. County of Sacramento (1993) 12 Cal.App.4th 59, 67, citing FPI Development, Inc. v. Nakashima (1991) 231 Cal. App. 3d 367, 381-382.) Courts “liberally construe the evidence in support of the party opposing summary judgment and resolve doubts concerning the evidence in favor of that party.” (Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 384, 389.)

 

As to each claim as framed by the complaint, the defendant moving for summary judgment must satisfy the initial burden of proof by presenting facts to negate an essential element, or to establish a defense. (C.C.P. § 437c(p)(2); Scalf v. D. B. Log Homes, Inc. (2005) 128 Cal.App.4th 1510, 1520.) Courts “liberally construe the evidence in support of the party opposing summary judgment and resolve doubts concerning the evidence in favor of that party.” (Dore v. Arnold Worldwide, Inc. (2006) 39 Cal.4th 384, 389.) Once the defendant has met that burden, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that a triable issue of one or more material facts exists as to that cause of action or a defense thereto. To establish a triable issue of material fact, the party opposing the motion must produce substantial responsive evidence. (C.C.P. § 437c(p)(2); Sangster v. Paetkau (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 151, 166.)

 

Analysis

 

Plaintiff’s operative Second Amended Complaint asserts one cause of action against Defendants for false imprisonment. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Hale and Flores arrested him on July 20, 2018, for criminal threats under Penal Code § 422(a) in response to a report made by other Defendants in this action. Plaintiff was subsequently formally charged with and arraigned on one felony count of violation of section 422. (UMF Nos. 3-4.) Plaintiff pled not guilty to this charge. (UMF No. 5.) Plaintiff’s preliminary hearing was held on November 16, 2018, before Judge Yvette Verastegui. (UMF No. 7.) At the preliminary hearing, Judge Verastegui denied Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the charges, but granted Plaintiff’s motion to reduce the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. (UMF Nos. 11-13.) Plaintiff was eventually acquitted on the misdemeanor charge for violation of section 422.

 

The parties are in agreement that a finding that Plaintiff was arrested with probable cause would defeat his claim for false imprisonment. Defendants argue the issue of probable cause was decided at the preliminary hearing, and that determination is entitled to preclusive effect under principles of res judicata and/or collateral estoppel.

 

There appears to be no dispute that Plaintiff was arrested without a warrant. Under Penal Code § 836(a), a police officer may only arrest a person without a warrant if:

 

(1) The officer has probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a public offense in the officer’s presence.

 

(2) The person arrested has committed a felony, although not in the officer’s presence.

 

(3) The officer has probable cause to believe that the person to be arrested has committed a felony, whether or not a felony, in fact, has been committed.

 

Under section 836(a), Defendant Hale and Flores could not have arrested Plaintiff for a misdemeanor violation of Penal Code § 422 as the subject threats were not committed in their presence. Instead, under section 836(a), their arrest of Plaintiff would only be proper if they had probable cause to believe Plaintiff had committed a felony. In other words, a finding of probable cause to believe Plaintiff had committed a misdemeanor would be insufficient to establish the validity of Defendant Hale and Flores’ arrest of Plaintiff under section 836(a).

 

With this understanding in mind, the Court turns to the preliminary hearing. After taking testimony from witnesses, Judge Verastegui ruled:

 

The court did review the probation report , heard the evidence , and at this time the court will exercise its discretion and reduce count 1 to a misdemeanor. It appearing to me from the evidence presented that the following offense has been committed and that there is sufficient cause to believe the following defendant guilty thereof: count 1, violation of penal code section 422, however, as a misdemeanor….

 

(Ex. C to Evanstad Decl. at 24:6-13.) The docket for these criminal proceedings similarly states:

 

Defendant's motion to dismiss due to the insufficiency of the Evidence is denied. Defendant's motion to reduce to a misdemeanor pursuant to penal Code section 17(b) is granted. Court finds sufficient cause to hold the defendant to answer on Count 1 as a misdemeanor.

 

(Ex. B to Evanstad Decl. at 2.) The term “sufficient cause” is generally equated with reasonable or probable cause. (People v. Encerti (1982) 130 Cal. App. 3d 791, 800.)

 

Citing these passages from the preliminary hearing, Plaintiff argues Judge Verastegui never found probable cause for a felony violation of Penal Code § 422, and instead only found probable cause for misdemeanor violation of section 422. As set forth above, a finding of probable cause of a misdemeanor charge would be insufficient to validate the arrest of Plaintiff under section 836(a).

 

Defendants argue Judge Verastegui found probable cause for a violation of section 422, and it does not matter if a “judge later reduces the penalty exposure.” (Reply at 4.) Defendants’ argument mischaracterizes the findings made by Judge Verastegui. Judge Verastegui did not make a finding of probable cause under section 422 generally and then later reduce the charge to a misdemeanor, rather Judge Verastegui only found sufficient evidence, or probable cause, for a misdemeanor violation.

 

Defendants argue this distinction is immaterial, but have not put forth any authority on point with the facts before the Court here. The Court has also been unable to locate any authority which squarely addresses the question. However, the Court notes Defendants’ proposed interpretation would subvert the distinctions drawn by Penal Code § 836(a). Under section 836(a)(1) a police officer may only arrest someone for a misdemeanor violation without a warrant if the officer has probable cause to believe the misdemeanor violation was committed in the officer’s presence. Under Defendants interpretation of the statute, police officers would be free to arrest anyone for misdemeanors committed outside their presence by claiming probable cause to arrest for a felony and relying on a judge’s finding of probable cause for a misdemeanor charge at a subsequent preliminary hearing to absolve the officer of any liability for violating the express terms of section 836(a).

 

In the absence of contrary authority, the Court must interpret section 836(a) in such a way as to render any of its restrictions meaningless or moot. The Court thus must give effect to section 836(a)(1), which provides Defendants Hale and Flores could not have properly arrested Plaintiff for a misdemeanor violation of section 422 which occurred outside their presence without first obtaining a warrant to do so. Defendants must instead show there was probable cause to believe Plaintiff had committed a felony under section 422. The Court’s ruling at the preliminary hearing only speaks to the probable cause for a misdemeanor violation of 422, not a felony violation, and thus cannot establish the requisite probable cause to defeat Plaintiff’s cause of action for false imprisonment. Defendants’ motion for summary judgment is thus DENIED.

 

Defendants’ moving papers also alleged Defendant City of Los Angeles is immune from liability under Government Code § 815(a). Plaintiff responds by acknowledging section 815(a) precludes Defendant City of Los Angeles from being held directly liable, but argues it may still be held vicariously liable. Plaintiff argues summary judgment should not be granted on this ground merely because the Second Amended Complaint does not explicitly allege vicarious liability under section 815(a). Defendants do not address this argument in their reply and thus it appears they are no longer seeking summary judgment on this basis. However, if that is not correct, the Court is inclined to grant Plaintiff’s request to amend the Second Amended Complaint to include a claim of vicarious liability against the City.

 

Conclusion

Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED.