475 U.S. 796 (1986), 85-531, City of Los Angeles v. Heller

Docket Nº:No. 85-531
Citation:475 U.S. 796, 106 S.Ct. 1571, 89 L.Ed.2d 806
Party Name:City of Los Angeles v. Heller
Case Date:April 21, 1986
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 796

475 U.S. 796 (1986)

106 S.Ct. 1571, 89 L.Ed.2d 806

City of Los Angeles

v.

Heller

No. 85-531

United States Supreme Court

April 21, 1986

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED

STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent was stopped by Los Angeles police officers, who suspected that he was driving while intoxicated, and was told that he was under arrest. When an officer attempted to handcuff him, an altercation developed and respondent fell through a plate-glass window. Respondent filed suit in Federal District Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming damages from arrest without probable cause and from excessive force in the making of the arrest. During a bifurcated trial, his claims against the police officer were heard first, and the jury was instructed that respondent would make out his constitutional claim if he demonstrated he had been arrested without reasonable cause or with "unreasonable force" that exceeded the force necessary under the circumstances to effect arrest. The jury was not instructed on any affirmative defenses that might have been asserted by the officer. The jury returned a verdict for the officer, and the District Court dismissed the action against petitioners, the city and members of its Police Commission. The Court of Appeals reversed the judgment dismissing the case against petitioners, even though it did not disturb the verdict for the officer.

Held: The Court of Appeals erred in apparently basing its reversal on the grounds that the jury could have believed that the officer, having followed Police Department regulations, was entitled in substance to a defense of good faith, and that such a belief would not negate the existence of a constitutional injury. The jury was not charged on any affirmative defense that the officer might have had -- such as good faith and qualified immunity -- and the theory under which jury instructions are given, and reviewed on appeal, provides that juries act in accordance with the instructions given them, and do not base their decisions on legal questions as to which they are not charged. The jury's finding of no constitutional injury was conclusive not only as to the officer, but also as to petitioners. Petitioners were sued only because they were thought legally responsible for the officer's actions; if the latter inflicted no constitutional injury on respondent, petitioners cannot be liable in damages to respondent, regardless

Page 797

of whether departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force.

Certiorari granted; 769 F.2d 1371, reversed and remanded.

Per curiam opinion.

PER CURIAM.

Respondent Ronald Heller sued petitioners, city of Los Angeles and individual members of the Los Angeles Police Commission, and two Los Angeles police officers in the United States District Court for the Central District of California under the provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He claimed damages by reason of having been arrested without probable cause and having been the victim of excessive force in the making of the arrest. The incident arose as a result of the two Los Angeles police officers' stopping him because of a suspicion that he was driving while intoxicated. In the words of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit:

The officers administered a series of field sobriety tests. Apparently dissatisfied with the results, the officers decided to take Heller to the station to undergo a breath test. When notified that he was under arrest, however, Heller became belligerent. One of the defendants, Officer Bushey, attempted to handcuff him. An altercation ensued. In the course of the struggle, Heller fell through a plate glass window.

Heller v. Bushey, 759 F.2d 1371, 1372-1373 (1985).

The District Court held a bifurcated trial, and first heard respondent's claims against one of the individual police officers. * The jury was instructed that Heller would make out his constitutional claim if he were arrested without reasonable cause, or if he were arrested with "unreasonable force" that exceeded the force necessary under the circumstances to effect arrest. Id. at 1374. The jury was not instructed on any affirmative defenses that might have been asserted by

Page 798

the individual police officer. Tr. in No. 80-2643 (CD Cal.), pp. 803-822, 843. The jury returned a verdict for the defendant police officer and against respondent. The District Court then dismissed the action against petitioners, concluding that, if the police officer had been exonerated by the jury, there could be no basis for assertion of liability against the city or the persons constituting its Police Commission.

Respondent appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and that court reversed the judgment of the District Court dismissing respondent's case against petitioners even though it did not disturb the verdict for the defendant police officer. Respondent urged, and the Court of Appeals apparently agreed, that "the jury could have believed that Bushey, having followed Police Department regulations, was entitled in substance to a defense of good faith. Such a belief would not negate the existence of a constitutional injury" (footnote omitted). 759 F.2d at 1373-1374.

The difficulty with this position is that the jury was not charged on any affirmative [106 S.Ct. 1573] defense such as good faith which might have been availed of by the individual police officer. Respondent contends in his brief in opposition to certiorari that, even though no issue of qualified immunity was presented to the jury, the jury might nonetheless have considered evidence which would have supported a finding of such immunity. But the theory under which jury instructions are given by trial courts and reviewed on appeal is that juries act in accordance with the instructions given them, see Aspen Skiing Co. v. Aspen Highlands Skiing Corp., 472 U.S. 585, 604 (1985), and that they do not consider and base their decisions on legal questions with respect to which they are not charged. We think that the Court of Appeals' search for ambiguity in the verdict was unavailing, as that court itself noted later in its opinion,

[b]ecause the instructions required a verdict for [respondent] if either the due process or the excessive force claim was found, the jury's

Page 799

verdict for the defendant required a negative finding on both claims.

759 F.2d at 1374, n. 3. This negative, it seems to us, was conclusive not only as to Officer Bushey, but also as to the city and its Police Commission. They were sued only because they were thought legally responsible for Bushey's actions; if the latter inflicted no constitutional injury on respondent, it is inconceivable that petitioners could be liable to respondent.

The Court of Appeals also stated:

We must conclude that the general verdict does not foreclose a finding that Heller suffered a constitutional deprivation. Heller's Monell claim survived the general verdict. . . . The jury verdict, of course, conclusively determined that there was probable cause to arrest Heller. On the other hand, it is equally clear that whether the application of force in accordance with Police Department regulations in this case exceeded constitutional limits has not been determined.

Id. at 1374-1375. But this was an action for damages, and neither Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), nor any other of our cases authorizes the award of damages against a municipal corporation based on the actions of one of its officers when, in fact, the jury has concluded that the officer inflicted no constitutional harm. If a person has suffered no constitutional injury at the hands of the individual police officer, the fact that the departmental regulations might have authorized the use of constitutionally excessive force is quite beside the point.

The petition for certiorari is granted, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Page 800

JUSTICE BRENNAN took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

JUSTICE MARSHALL dissents from this summary disposition, which has been ordered without affording the parties prior notice or an opportunity to file briefs on the merits. See Cuyahoga Valley R. Co. v. Transportation Union, 474 U.S. 3, 8 (1985) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting); Maggio v. Fulford, 462 U.S. 111, 120-121 (1983) (MARSHALL, J., dissenting).

STEVENS, J., dissenting

JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE MARSHALL joins, dissenting.

Whenever the Court decides a case without the benefit of briefs or argument on the merits, there is a danger that it will issue an opinion without the careful deliberation and explication that the issues require. Today's "per curiam" opinion is a fair illustration of the problem. The two important issues presented in this case are not even identified in that document. The District Court's decision to dismiss the action against the city, the Police Department, and the Police Commissioners necessarily rested on two assumptions: (1) there was an inherent inconsistency between the [106 S.Ct. 1574] jury verdict in favor of Officer Bushey and a possible verdict against the municipal defendants and (2) that inconsistency required the dismissal of the action against the municipal defendants. Far from specifically addressing those issues, however, the District Court dismissed the action against the city on the ground that it had "become moot."1 In a similar vein, this

Page 801

Court rests its summary decision on the maxim that "juries act in accordance with the instructions given them." Ante at 798. In my view, neither of the necessary assumptions for the District Court's action -- and for this Court's reinstatement of its decision -- is remotely present in this case.

I

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