330 F.3d 1186 (9th Cir. 2003), 01-56929, Cervantes v. U.S.

Docket Nº:01-56929
Citation:330 F.3d 1186
Party Name:Cervantes v. U.S.
Case Date:June 02, 2003
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

Page 1186

330 F.3d 1186 (9th Cir. 2003)

Jose Aguado CERVANTES, Plaintiff-Appellant,


UNITED STATES of America, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 01-56929.

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

June 2, 2003

Argued Dec. 6, 2002.

Submitted Dec. 13, 2002.

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Stephen J. Estey, Estey & Bomberger, LLP, San Diego, CA, for the plaintiff-appellant.

Patrick K. O'Toole, United States Attorney (when brief was filed), Carol C. Lam, United States Attorney (when oral argument was heard and opinion was filed), Peter J. Sholl, Assistant United States Attorney (on the brief), Timothy C. Stutler, Assistant U.S. Attorney (at oral argument), San Diego, CA, for the defendant-appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of California; Judith N. Keep, District Judge, Presiding. D.C. No. CV-01-00128-JNK.

Before: BROWNING, KOZINSKI and WARDLAW, Circuit Judges.


WARDLAW, Circuit Judge.

Although rare, on occasion, we see arguments that simply fail the straight-face test. The United States' assertion that the "detention of goods" exception to the sovereign immunity waiver under the Federal Tort Claims Act applies to its negligent failure to remove 119 pounds of marijuana hidden in a car it sold to Jose Aguado Cervantes, whom it later incarcerated for "transporting" those very drugs, is one. Although we agree with the district court that Cervantes cannot recover damages for false imprisonment or false arrest because the customs agents had reasonable cause to believe his arrest was lawful, the United States' defense to his negligence claim is patently without merit. We therefore affirm the district court's order dismissing Cervantes's false imprisonment and false arrest claims, and reinstate Cervantes's negligence claim.

I. Standard of review

We review de novo a district court's dismissal of an action pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Fireman's Fund Ins. Co. v. City of Lodi, 302 F.3d 928, 939 (9th Cir. 2002). In determining whether dismissal was properly granted, we assume all factual allegations are true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See id.

II. Background

At a United States Marshals Service ("USMS") auction held in San Diego, California on July 15, 1999, Cervantes, a 67-year-old Mexican national and resident, purchased the vehicle that would lead to his first and, according to the record before us, only experience with criminal law enforcement. Some four months earlier, the vehicle had been seized by the Immigration and Naturalization Service ("INS") in connection with its use in transporting undocumented aliens. Cervantes alleges that neither the INS nor the USMS properly searched the vehicle prior to its sale at auction and that, if they had, they would have discovered 119 pounds of marijuana

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secreted in its bumpers. Cervantes remained similarly unaware of the contraband until its discovery by United States Customs agents as he attempted to cross the United States border on October 22, 1999. Although Cervantes denied knowledge of the marijuana and informed the agents that he had purchased the vehicle at a USMS auction, he was arrested and incarcerated for importing illegal drugs into the United States. The United States moved to dismiss all charges, according to Cervantes, after it realized that it had failed to remove the marijuana after the vehicle's initial seizure. He was released on February 9, 2000, having spent three and one-half months in prison.

III. Discussion

A. The Federal Tort Claims Act

The United States can be sued only to the extent that it waives its sovereign immunity from suit. See United States v. Orleans, 425 U.S. 807, 814, 96 S.Ct. 1971, 48 L.Ed.2d 390 (1976). The Federal Tort Claims Act ("FTCA"), 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346(b), 2671-2680, sets forth the circumstances under which the federal government waives this immunity. In general, the FTCA provides federal liability for tort claims "in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under like circumstances." Id. § 2674.

The FTCA's broad waiver of sovereign immunity is limited, however, by exceptions enumerated in § 2680, "a statutory reservation of sovereign immunity for a particular class of tort claims." Gager v. United States, 149 F.3d 918, 920 (9th Cir. 1998). The Supreme Court has explained that these exceptions:

ensur[e] that "certain governmental activities" not be disrupted by the threat of damages suits;[2] avoid[ ] exposure of the United States to liability for excessive or fraudulent claims; and [3] [avoid] extending the coverage of the Act to suits for which adequate remedies were already available.

Kosak v. United States, 465 U.S. 848, 858, 104 S.Ct. 1519, 79 L.Ed.2d 860 (1984). Where a § 2680 exception applies, the United States has not waived its immunity from suit, and a court lacks jurisdiction over such claims.

B. False arrest and false imprisonment

Cervantes's claims for false arrest and false imprisonment are barred by his lawful arrest upon probable cause, i.e., the discovery of contraband in his vehicle by Customs agents at the United States border. California law, applicable here 7132 under 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1), protects a law enforcement officer from liability for false arrest or false imprisonment where the officer, acting within the scope of his or her authority, either (1) effects a lawful arrest or (2) has reasonable cause to believe the arrest is lawful. See Cal.Penal Code § 847(b); see also Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 555, 87 S.Ct. 1213, 18 L.Ed.2d 288 (1967) (an "officer who arrests someone with probable cause is not liable for false arrest simply because the innocence of the suspect is later proved"), overruled on other grounds, Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982); Cabrera v. City of Huntington Park, 159 F.3d 374, 380 (9th Cir. 1998). Cervantes's presence in a vehicle carrying illegal drugs was sufficient probable cause for his arrest. See United States v. Carranza, 289 F.3d 634, 641 (9th Cir. 2002). Therefore, the district court properly dismissed his claims for false arrest and false imprisonment.

C. Negligence

Cervantes's claim for negligence is an entirely different matter. We are compelled to note that the United States' assertion, as its...

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