32 Cal.4th 820, S113301, Venegas v. County of Los Angeles

Docket Nº:S113301
Citation:32 Cal.4th 820, 11 Cal.Rptr.3d 692, 87 P.3d 1
Party Name:Venegas v. County of Los Angeles
Case Date:April 05, 2004
Court:Supreme Court of California

Page 820

32 Cal.4th 820

11 Cal.Rptr.3d 692, 87 P.3d 1

DAVID VENEGAS et al., Plaintiffs and Appellants,


COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Respondents.


Supreme Court of California

April 5, 2004

Court: Superior Los Angeles County, Judge: Daniel S. Pratt, Super. Ct. Nos. BC207136, Ct.App. 2/7 B148398.

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Robert Mann and Donald W. Cook for Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Law Offices of John Burton, John Burton and Mary Anna Soifer for LA Police Watch as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants.

Franscell, Strickland, Roberts & Lawrence, Cindy S. Lee, Jin S. Choi and Adrian J. Barrio for Defendants and Respondents County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Lee Baca, Deputy Michael Gray, Deputy Robert Harris and Deputy Thomas Jimenez.

Eduardo Olivo, City Attorney (Vernon); and John J. Cardenas for Defendants and Respondents Vernon Police Department and Detective Steven Wiles.



Does a sheriff act on behalf of the state or county when conducting a criminal investigation, including detaining suspects and searching their home and vehicle? As we shall see, based on the analysis in prior California cases, sheriffs act on behalf of the state when performing law enforcement activities. Under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the state is absolutely immune from tort liability under the federal Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. § 1983, hereafter section 1983). Accordingly, as agents of the state when acting in their law enforcement roles, California sheriffs are likewise absolutely immune from prosecution for asserted violations of that section. We will reverse that part of the judgment of the Court of Appeal reaching a contrary conclusion in this case.

We also consider whether the sheriff's deputies involved here were entitled to qualified immunity under section 1983 because reasonable officers in their position would have believed their actions were lawful under established law. We conclude that the Court of Appeal employed incorrect legal principles in

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resolving this issue. After explaining the applicable principles, we will remand to the Court of Appeal to reconsider this primarily factual issue in the context of defendants' motion for nonsuit.

Finally, we determine whether plaintiffs stated a cause of action against the County of Los Angeles (County), its sheriff's department, sheriff, and deputies, under Civil Code section 52.1, for committing an unreasonable detention, search, and seizure. We conclude that plaintiffs did state a cause of action against these defendants, and we will affirm that portion of the Court of Appeal's judgment so holding.

I. Facts

The following uncontradicted facts are largely taken from the Court of Appeal's opinion in this case. The Task Force for Regional Auto Theft Prevention (TRAP) was an interagency task force run by the County's Sheriff's Department to facilitate theft investigations involving multiple jurisdictions. Defendant Steven Wiles, a police officer for the City of Vernon and a TRAP member, was investigating plaintiff David Venegas's brother, Ricardo Venegas, who was believed to be involved in an automobile theft ring. Wiles and other TRAP officers (evidently, defendants Michael Gray, Robert Harris and Thomas Jimenez, each sheriff's deputies) pursued a car driven by Beatriz Venegas, accompanied by her husband David. TRAP officers, noting a resemblance between David and Ricardo, stopped the car and learned that David was Ricardo's brother. David argued with the officers and they handcuffed him and detained Beatriz. Wiles questioned David about his car, which had no license plates or vehicle identification number. David told Wiles he had just bought the car and it was a salvaged vehicle. The officers impounded the car to determine whether it was stolen.

When asked for identification David told the officers it was at his home nearby. David refused to sign an entry and search waiver form to allow the officers to pick up his identification, but he gave verbal consent for the officers to accompany Beatriz to their home for that purpose. Wiles assured the couple their home would not be searched.

TRAP officers took Beatriz home and had her sign a written entry and search waiver form granting "full and unconditional authority" to the officers to enter and conduct a search for identification and "any related investigation in any related criminal or non-criminal law enforcement matter." The officers accompanied her inside her home. While she was retrieving David's identification card, the officers searched the entire house and found papers indicating that David was on felony probation. On learning this, Wiles directed the officers to arrest David for violating Vehicle Code section 10751, subdivision (a), a misdemeanor, and for also violating his probation. Police officers

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eventually booked David into custody. They detained Beatriz for two hours but did not charge her with any offense. The next day, after determining that the car was probably not stolen, Wiles directed that David be released from custody, but he was not released for another two days. No charges were ever filed against him.

Plaintiffs David and Beatriz Venegas filed an action against Wiles, the City of Vernon, the Vernon Police Department, the County and its sheriff's department, sheriff and deputies. The complaint purported to state causes of action under section 1983 on behalf of both plaintiffs for unreasonable search and seizure, and a similar cause of action under Civil Code section 52.1, subdivision (b), on David's behalf. David also sued for false detention and arrest.

After certain of these claims were settled or resolved in defendants' favor on demurrer, the remaining ones (concerning the legality of the search of the Venegas home and the detention/arrest of David and Beatriz) were tried. After plaintiffs rested their case-in-chief, defendants moved for a nonsuit, which the trial court granted, entering judgment in defendants' favor.

Plaintiffs appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that: (1) triable factual questions existed as to whether Beatriz's and/or David's detention was unreasonable and whether the search of their house was invalid; (2) the trial court erred in sustaining the demurrers of County, its sheriff's department, sheriff and deputies, to plaintiffs' section 1983 claims on the ground these persons were immune from liability; and (3) the trial court erred in sustaining these defendants' demurrers to plaintiffs' Civil Code section 52.1 cause of action on the ground plaintiffs failed to allege they were members of a protected class.

II. State Agent Immunity Under Section 1983

County, on behalf of its sheriff's department and sheriff (hereafter defendants) contends that California sheriffs conducting criminal investigations are acting on behalf of the state when performing law enforcement activities. Accordingly, defendants claim that, as a state agent, the sheriff enjoys the state's immunity from prosecution for the asserted violations of section 1983 occurring in this case. Contrary to the Court of Appeal, we agree with defendants.

Section 1983 provides in pertinent part: "Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the

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deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress . . . ."

Is a sheriff engaged in a criminal investigation a "person" under section 1983? The United States Supreme Court has held that cities, counties, and local officers sued in their official capacity are themselves "persons" for purposes of section 1983 and, although they cannot be held vicariously liable under section 1983 for their subordinate officers' unlawful acts, they may be held directly liable for constitutional violations carried out under their own regulations, policies, customs, or usages by persons having "final policymaking authority" over the actions at issue. (McMillian v. Monroe County (1997) 520 U.S. 781, 784-785 (McMillian); Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services (1978) 436 U.S. 658, 690-692 (Monell); see Pitts v. County of Kern (1998) 17 Cal.4th 340, 348 [70 Cal.Rptr.2d 823] (Pitts); County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 1166, 1171 [80 Cal.Rptr.2d 860] (Peters).)

On the other hand, states and state officers sued in their official capacity are not considered persons under section 1983 and are immune from liability under the statute by virtue of the Eleventh Amendment and the doctrine of sovereign immunity. (Howlett v. Rose (1990) 496 U.S. 356, 365; Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police (1989) 491 U.S. 58, 63-67, 71; Pitts, supra, 17 Cal.4th at p. 348; Peters, supra, 68 Cal.App.4th at p. 1171.) As Will stated, "it does not follow that if municipalities are persons then so are States. States are protected by the Eleventh Amendment [of the United States Constitution] while municipalities are not . . . ." (Will, supra, at p. 70.) Will continued, noting that "Obviously, state officials literally are persons. But a suit against a state official in his or her official capacity is not a suit against the official but rather is a suit against the official's office. [Citation.] As such, it is no different from a suit against the State...

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