Sightler v. City of San Diego et al

Filing 85

ORDER Partially Granting Summary Judgment, re 62 Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted in part, and denied in part. Signed by Judge Larry Alan Burns on 3/28/2018. (jdt)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA DEMETRICE SIGHTLER, Plaintiff, 11 12 13 14 CASE NO. 15cv2235-LAB (DHB) vs. ORDER PARTIALLY GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT CITY OF SAN DIEGO, et al., Defendants. 15 When Demetrice Sightler walked out onto his balcony on a September afternoon, he 16 expected to find his girlfriend. Instead, he found himself surrounded by San Diego police 17 officers with guns drawn. When Sightler asked why police had a machine gun pointed at 18 him, the police said: “That’s how we do business, okay?” A jury, not a judge, needs to decide 19 whether that’s an okay way to conduct business under the Fourth Amendment. 20 Background 21 Three years ago, the San Diego Police received a 911 call from a mother who said 22 her son was threatening to shoot his girlfriend. She identified her son as Benjamin Harmon: 23 a 26-year-old black man living at 3659 Lemona Avenue in Apartment 5. An hour later, 24 Demetrice Sightler, a 33-year-old black man, walked onto his balcony at Apartment 3. 25 More than ten officers surrounded Sightler and a helicopter hovered overhead. At 26 least four officers had guns pointed at him. Sightler complied with commands to put his 27 hands up. He told police he had no weapons. For the next ten minutes, an officer trained an 28 AR-15 with a red-lit optic on Sightler. The police told Sightler to walk through his apartment -1- 1 and surrender to them at his front door. Sightler refused. He didn’t want to turn his back with 2 a gun aimed at him. Sightler repeatedly told the officers his name, and explained they had 3 the wrong apartment. Eventually, the police located a picture of their suspect, Benjamin 4 Harmon, and confirmed he wasn’t Demetrice Sightler. They lowered their guns and told 5 Sightler he could go back into his apartment. 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Sightler sued the four officers who aimed guns at him, the two commanding officers 13 on scene, and the City of San Diego under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of his Fourth 14 Amendment rights. Defendants moved for summary judgment. 15 Analysis 16 The court must grant summary judgment if Defendants show there’s no genuine 17 dispute as to any material fact. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. Viewing the facts in the light most 18 favorable to Sightler, a jury could find the police violated his rights by holding him at 19 gunpoint. The Court denies Defendants’ motion for summary judgment for the six officers 20 on Sightler’s claims for (i) unreasonable seizure and (ii) excessive force. The Court grants 21 summary judgment for the City on Sightler’s claims alleging (i) a policy of excessive force in 22 arresting black citizens, (ii) failure to train, and (iii) failure to supervise. 23 I. The Officers 24 Defendants failed to meet their burden because they didn’t explain why each 25 individual officer was entitled to judgment for their particular actions. But even if they had 26 analyzed each officer individually, the Court would still find they all need to stand trial. “An 27 officer's liability under section 1983 is predicated on his ‘integral participation’ in the alleged 28 violation.” That doesn’t require that “each officer's actions themselves rise to the level of a -2- 1 constitutional violation”; rather, it “require[s] some fundamental involvement in the conduct 2 that allegedly caused the violation.” Blankenhorn v. City of Orange, 485 F.3d 463, 481 n.12 3 (9th Cir. 2007) (alterations omitted). A jury may find some officers liable and others not, but 4 the Court finds they were all integral participants. That’s because the core conduct that 5 restricted Sightler’s liberty in an unreasonable way was pointing guns at him. The parties 6 agree Longen, Levin, Johnson, and Hupp all pointed loaded guns at Sightler. Nislet and 7 McClain didn’t point guns, but as the commanding officers on scene, they failed to order the 8 four officers to lower their guns. There’s also sufficient evidence to find them liable for their 9 inaction in the supervision and control of their subordinates. Preschooler II v. Clark Cty. Sch. 10 Bd. of Trustees, 479 F.3d 1175, 1183 (9th Cir. 2007). 1 11 1. 12 The Fourth Amendment bans unreasonable seizures. Both sides agree a seizure 13 occurred. But Defendants maintain they performed a Terry stop based on reasonable 14 suspicion. Sightler argues the police arrested him without probable cause. The Court finds 15 the police arrested Sightler, but it’s a question for the jury whether they had probable cause. 16 Unreasonable Seizure A. Arrest 17 The Court finds an arrest occurred based on Kraus v. Pierce Cty., 793 F.2d 1105 (9th 18 Cir. 1986). In Kraus, a witness reported a license plate to police after he witnessed an armed 19 man commit an ATM robbery, and then saw a car speed away. The police located the 20 address that matched the plate. When the officers arrived at the suspect’s address, they 21 “decided to surround the front of the house, draw their weapons, bring the occupants out of 22 the house, shine floodlights on them, and then interrogate them.” Id. at 1107. At least five 23 officers aimed guns at the two occupants who came out of the house. After “some period of 24 observation” the police realized they had the wrong people, questioned them, and left. The 25 26 27 28 1 The police video suggests Hupp and Johnson only pointed guns at Sightler initially. But the video starts at some unknown time, and Defendants admit Hupp and Johnson periodically pointed guns at Sightler. Also, McClain was in charge, but Nisleit agreed he was the ranking officer and “gave direction to McClain,” Longen, and Harbin. So he’s in as well. [Dkt. 69-7 at 27 and Dkt. 62-19.] -3- 1 Ninth Circuit found this conduct amounted to an arrest because “[a] reasonable person in 2 this situation would have believed that he was not free to leave and was effectively under 3 arrest.” Id. at 1109. Since this case turns on the same salient facts as Kraus, the Court finds 4 the police arrested Sightler. 5 This conclusion is confirmed by the analysis laid out in Washington v. Lambert, 98 6 F.3d 1181 (9th Cir. 1996). To decide if stops have turned into arrests, courts consider “how 7 intrusive the stop was” with the justification for the intrusiveness “given the specific 8 circumstances.” Id. Both sides agree the police held Sightler for ten minutes at gunpoint. 9 Thirteen officers surrounded the building, along with a canine unit, and a helicopter. This 10 type of intrusion on an innocent citizen who unknowingly walks out onto their home’s balcony 11 is extreme. 12 To decide if the police deployed justifiable tactics, the Court considers “whether the 13 officer had sufficient basis to fear for his safety to warrant the intrusiveness of the action 14 taken.” Id. at 1185. Specific factors include whether the suspect is uncooperative, if he’s 15 currently armed, and if the stop follows a violent crime. It’s true that from the officers’ 16 perspectives, someone who stepped onto the balcony might be a violent person with a gun. 17 But in Kraus, police also believed the resident who stepped out of the house might be a 18 violet person with a gun. That fact didn’t alter the Ninth Circuit’s finding of an arrest. 19 Defendants raise two points. First, they maintain Sightler’s responsible for extending 20 the stop because he refused “to comply with the officers’ instructions to go through the 21 apartment and surrender to the officers near his front door.” [Dkt. 62-1 at 13.] That’s 22 unpersuasive. Sightler did what you’d expect: he refused to move because he was afraid 23 he might get shot. The cops also say they pointed guns at Sightler because they feared he 24 might have a weapon inside his apartment. If true, then it wouldn’t make sense to order 25 Sightler to walk into his apartment. Second, Defendants argue Sightler wasn’t handcuffed 26 or physically restricted: “there was nothing the officers could do to prevent [Sightler] from 27 going back into his apartment.” [Dkt. 71 at 3.] They had an AR-15 aimed at Sightler for ten 28 minutes. Imminent death is a more powerful deterrent to movement than handcuffs. -4- 1 B. Probable Cause 2 Police have probable cause to arrest someone without a warrant where, “under the 3 totality of the facts and circumstances known to the arresting officer, a prudent person would 4 have concluded that there was a fair probability that the suspect had committed a crime.” 5 United States v. Struckman, 603 F.3d 731, 739 (9th Cir. 2010). There’s two related 6 questions here: Did the cops reasonably misidentify the balcony? And did the cops 7 reasonably misidentify Sightler? Because both answers are close calls that require 8 evaluating if the officer’s acted reasonably, a jury should decide if they had probable cause. 9 On the one hand, it’s understandable why the police thought Sightler was their guy. 10 They were looking for a young black man who had his girlfriend at gunpoint. When a young 11 black man walked onto the balcony the officers believed was attached to Apartment 5, they 12 thought he might be Harmon. That’s especially true because the mother who called only 13 offered a general description of Harmon as a 26-year-old black man with black hair. And 14 while she provided the right apartment number, she also provided the wrong birthdate, which 15 delayed efforts to identify Harmon. Sightler explained who he was, but police don’t need to 16 take someone’s word when they’re trying to stop someone else from getting killed. 17 On the other hand, a jury could find the police didn’t have enough information to 18 connect the balcony to Apartment 5. For example, Defendants say they believed they had 19 the right balcony because Officer Mendez and Cooper told them so. But Mendez “advised 20 over the radio it was ‘unknown’ whether the apartment had access to the balcony.” [Dkt. 82 21 at 7.] The officers also had the phone number for the victim—Harmon’s girlfriend—about 20 22 minutes before Sightler stepped onto his balcony. Yet, they didn’t obtain information about 23 the balcony or suspect. Worse, Sightler’s girlfriend came home during the encounter. She 24 explained the mistake, but the police continued to hold Sightler at gunpoint. Finally, Officer 25 Longen says he pulled up Harmon’s photo on his ride over. Longen had the same 26 information as the other officers. If he could find Harmon with the wrong birthdate, why 27 couldn’t they? A jury could find it was unreasonable the police failed to obtain more 28 information about the apartment layout, Harmon, and Sightler. -5- 1 Defendants argue they reasonably relied on other officers who identified the balcony. 2 It’s true that officers aren’t required “to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by [ ] 3 fellow officers.” White v. Pauly, 137 S. Ct. 548, 552 (2017). But reliance on other officers “is 4 only allowed when it is objectively reasonable.” Green, 751 F.3d at 1045. A jury could find 5 the reliance here wasn’t reasonable. Cooper never confirmed the balcony belonged to 6 Apartment 5, Mendez explicitly stated it was “unknown,” and McClain admitted he expected 7 his subordinates “to use their own judgment” to decide if the balcony belonged to Apartment 8 5. [Dkt. 82 at ¶¶ 11, 19, 21.] 2 A jury should decide if the reliance here was reasonable. See 9 Green, 751 F.3d at 1046 (reversing for jury to decide because officers “have an ongoing 10 duty to make appropriate inquiries regarding the facts” “if insufficient details are relayed”). 11 The Court understands the police’s point of view. They believed the person who 12 stepped onto the balcony was likely their guy. But you can only take that logic so far. If a 13 child stepped onto the balcony, Defendants would agree they couldn’t train their guns on 14 him. Not because of age, but because he wouldn’t match the suspect’s description. 15 Underlying this case is the more invidious problem that officers were looking for a black 16 man, saw a black man, then pointed their guns at a black man. Targeting someone based 17 on their race alone isn’t good enough. Because there’s a triable issue whether the police 18 had probable cause, and ultimately whether this seizure was unreasonable, summary 19 judgment on this claim is DENIED. 3 20 2. 21 The Court asks “whether the officers' actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of 22 the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or 23 motivation.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 397 (1989). The issue here is straightforward: Excessive Force 24 25 26 2 McClain implies Cooper identified the balcony as belonging to Apartment 5, but Cooper’s testimony, and the undisputed facts, are silent on this point. [Dkt. 62-5. and Dkt. 62-18.] 3 27 28 Even if this was a Terry stop, the Court would still find a jury needed to decide if (i) the officers had reasonable suspicion; and (ii) whether the length and scope of the stop was reasonable. See Green, 751 F.3d at 1046 (9th Cir. 2014). -6- 1 could a jury find that pointing guns at Sightler was objectively unreasonable? To answer the 2 question, courts consider: (1) the force used; (2) the severity of the reported crime, if the 3 suspect posed an immediate threat, if the suspect resisted; and (3) the Court balances the 4 intrusion on the suspect with the government’s need for the intrusion. Miller v. Clark County, 5 340 F.3d 959, 964 (9th Cir. 2003). The analysis here overlaps with the issues above. 6 First, the police used extreme force. Having a gun pointed at you, especially for ten 7 minutes, is as serious as it gets. Sightler testified he was afraid that “if he made any 8 movements at all, the officers would fire at him.” [Dkt. 62-12 at 21.] Defendants argue 9 Sightler failed to show “the risk of injury was high” because there’s no evidence “Longen 10 had his finger on the trigger or anything that made the risk high such as pointing the weapon 11 directly at Plaintiff’s head.” [Dkt. 71 at 6.] That’s a distinction without a difference. Whether 12 Longen aimed his gun at Sightler’s head or heart doesn’t reduce the risk of death. 13 Second, it’s true the reported crime was severe. But Sightler held his hands up, and 14 repeatedly provided exonerating information. The video also captures Hupp yell, “He’s 15 cooperating.” Defendants argue the officers didn’t know if Sightler was armed because he 16 was on an elevated balcony—they couldn’t rule out other guns on the balcony, on him, or 17 stashed inside. Defendants can argue those points to the jury. The cops presumably have 18 binoculars and scopes, and it’s undisputed a helicopter was overhead. Viewing the evidence 19 in the light most favorable to Sightler, a jury could conclude he wasn’t a threat. 20 Third, on balance, a jury could find the force here was too great an intrusion, even 21 given Defendants’ interest in stopping a serious crime. As the Ninth Circuit explained, “at 22 the very least, [the officers] could have held their weapons at a ‘low ready’ position rather 23 than pointing them directly” at the suspect. Green, 751 F.3d at 1050. Defendants haven’t 24 shown this is the rare case where the undisputed facts show no reasonable jury could find 25 for Sightler. Chew v. Gates, 27 F.3d 1432, 1443 (9th Cir.1994). The motion for summary 26 judgment on the excessive force claim is DENIED. 27 II. 28 Qualified Immunity “In determining whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity, we consider (1) -7- 1 whether there has been a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) whether that right was 2 clearly established at the time of the officer's alleged misconduct.” S.B. v. Cty. of San Diego, 3 864 F.3d 1010, 1013 (9th Cir. 2017). Since a jury could find Defendants violated Sightler’s 4 Fourth Amendment rights, the only question is whether reasonable officers would have 5 known the law clearly prohibited their conduct. That doesn’t require a “case directly on 6 point,” but “existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question 7 beyond debate.” White v. Pauly, 137 S. Ct. 548, 551 (2017) (alterations omitted). 8 1. 9 Kraus provides sufficient precedent “where an officer acting under similar 10 circumstances” “was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at 552. In Kraus, 11 police held the wrong person at gunpoint based on unverified information that associated 12 Kraus’s car with the armed robber. Here, the police held the wrong person at gunpoint based 13 on unverified information that associated Sightler’s balcony with the armed neighbor. In 14 Kraus, the Ninth Circuit reversed an order granting qualified immunity because a reasonable 15 officer should have known that holding cooperative suspects at gunpoint based on 16 incomplete and unverified information linking them to property associated with the crime 17 was an unreasonable seizure. Kraus, 793 F.2d at 1110 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Green, 751 18 F.3d at 1052 (9th Cir. 2014). Qualified immunity for the unlawful arrest claim is DENIED. Unlawful Arrest 19 2. 20 Robinson provides sufficient precedent where officers used excessive force under 21 similar circumstances as this case. In Robinson, police responded to a home after a report 22 the suspect had shot two dogs. When the police arrived, Robinson walked out of his home, 23 unarmed, and two officers pointed guns at him. Here, Sightler walked out of his home, 24 unarmed, and four officers pointed guns at him. The Ninth Circuit was clear: “pointing a gun 25 to the head of an apparently unarmed suspect during an investigation can be a violation of 26 the Fourth Amendment, especially where the individual poses no particular danger.” 27 Robinson v. Solano Cty., 278 F.3d 1007, 1015 (9th Cir. 2002); See also Green, 751 F.3d at 28 1052. Qualified immunity for the excessive force claim is DENIED. Excessive Force -8- 1 Defendants argue the officers believed Sightler may have recently committed a crime 2 with a gun. But that belief isn’t sufficient to justify qualified immunity. Because in Kraus and 3 Robinson, the police also believed the citizens they held at gunpoint had committed serious 4 crimes with a gun: The police believed Kraus had just committed an armed robbery; they 5 believed Robinson had just used his shotgun to kill two dogs. The Ninth Circuit clearly 6 explained that “earlier use of a weapon” is “insufficient to justify” a pointed gun when the 7 person is cooperative and unarmed. Robinson, 278 F.3d at 1014 (9th Cir. 2002). 8 II. City of San Diego 9 Sightler’s opposition failed to offer any legal argument for his claims against the City. 10 Instead, his facts section offers conclusory statements that string cite to evidence; his 11 argument section lists general legal principles. He hasn’t explained how the law applies to 12 the facts. The Court finds on this basis alone Sightler’s waived these causes of action by 13 failing to oppose. The Court parsed through his fact citations nonetheless, but finds these 14 causes of action lack any evidentiary support a jury could rely on to find for Sightler. 15 1. 16 A city is liable under § 1983 when it has an unconstitutional policy or practice that 17 was the moving force behind the constitutional violation. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of 18 City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). Sightler’s theory seems to be that the City 19 of San Diego has a practice “of using excessive force to detain and arrest Black and 20 Brown citizens without reasonable suspicion or probable cause.” [Dkt.69 at 14.] Practice of Unreasonable Seizures 21 The evidence Sightler identifies isn’t on point. He refers to deposition testimony that 22 he didn’t live in an affluent area, that people in his neighborhood were “messed with by the 23 cops,” and that Nisleit told him: “I hope you don’t run into any of these [officers] again.” [Dkt. 24 69-6.] He cites a San Diego State research paper on traffic stops. But he doesn’t provide 25 any argument for how the paper applies to his theory. The report isn’t probative anyway. For 26 example, it concluded: “No meaningful difference existed in the rate at which drivers from 27 each racial/ethnic group were arrested.” [Dkt. 71-1 at 71.] Summary judgment on this claim 28 is GRANTED. -9- 1 2. 2 Only where the “failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference” is a city potentially 3 liable under § 1983. City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 388 (1989). Sightler offers 4 a conclusory sentence that training was inadequate, and then references testimony by Hupp 5 and Johnson where they can’t recall a few training terms on use of force. He also cites his 6 police expert’s testimony that “a similarly trained San Diego Police Department officer would 7 not have considered Mr. Slighter to be a lethal threat.” [Dkt.69-1 at 322–23.] That suggests 8 San Diego provides fine training. There’s no evidence here of deliberate indifference. 9 Summary judgment on this claim is GRANTED. Failure to train 10 3. 11 Sightler’s theory here is unclear. If he’s alleging claims against Nisleit and McClain, 12 the Court’s addressed those issues above. But his complaint states this claim is against “the 13 City of San Diego and All Doe Policy-makers.” Doe policymakers apparently refers to people 14 like “the current SDPD Chief” and the “Assistant Chief” who Sightler said he might name as 15 defendants, but never did. [Dkt. 20 at 3.] Summary judgment on this claim is GRANTED. Failure to supervise 16 Disposition 17 The Court is reluctant to expose officers to liability when they answer an emergency 18 call under the belief that a fellow citizen has a gun held to her head. At the same time, fellow 19 citizens shouldn’t have to experience the terror of an AR-15 pointed at them for ten minutes 20 on a fall afternoon—especially when they are at home. 4 Defendants’ motion for summary 21 judgment is granted in part, and denied in part. 22 23 IT IS SO ORDERED. Dated: March 28, 2018 24 HONORABLE LARRY ALAN BURNS United States District Judge 25 26 4 27 28 Neither party addressed that this encounter happened at Sightler’s home. The Court declines to analyze the issue, but highlights it for the parties to consider. See Hopkins v. Bonvicino, 573 F.3d 752, 759 (9th Cir. 2009); Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 590 (1980). - 10 -

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