City of Phoenix v. Yarnell, CV-94-0416-PR

CourtSupreme Court of Arizona
Citation909 P.2d 377,184 Ariz. 310
Docket NumberNo. CV-94-0416-PR,CV-94-0416-PR
PartiesCITY OF PHOENIX; Gregory Edgcombe; and Michael Sechez; Maricopa County, Defendants-Petitioners, v. Hon. Michael A. YARNELL, Judge of the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, in and for the County of Maricopa, Respondent, and Michael J. SMITH, Real Party in Interest.
Decision Date14 December 1995

FELDMAN, Chief Justice.

Released after arrest and nine months' incarceration, Michael J. Smith ("Smith") brought a tort action seeking damages under various theories, including violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against the City of Phoenix ("City"), two Phoenix Police Department detectives ("detectives"), and Maricopa County ("County") (collectively "Defendants"). The trial court denied all of Defendants' motions for summary judgment on Smith's state tort law and federal claims. Defendants then petitioned the court of appeals for relief by special action. 1 The court accepted jurisdiction and ordered the trial court to enter summary judgment for all Defendants on the claims asserted under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. City of Phoenix v. Superior Court, 180 Ariz. 472, 885 P.2d 160 (App.1994).

We granted review to consider the doctrine of qualified immunity, the issue of municipal liability, and when county officials' actions may represent official municipal policy. We have jurisdiction under Ariz. Const. art. 6, § 5(3) and A.R.S. § 12-120.24. We affirm the order granting judgment in favor of the City and the detectives. Because the record reflects genuine issues of material fact concerning the County's potential liability, however, we vacate the court of appeals' opinion and its order directing entry of summary judgment in favor of the County.

We view the facts in the light most favorable to Smith, the party against whom summary judgment was granted. See Hill v. Chubb Life Am. Ins. Co., 182 Ariz. 158, 160, 894 P.2d 701, 703 (1995). 2 This is especially true when the non-movant is a plaintiff alleging a civil rights violation. Gobel v. Maricopa County, 867 F.2d 1201, 1203 (9th Cir.1989); see also Morris v. Alabama State Dept. of Indus. Relations, 435 F.2d 137 (5th Cir.1970).


Victim A, a white female, was sexually assaulted in her Phoenix apartment early on the morning of January 26, 1991. The assailant demanded her ATM access number, an unusual act in such attacks, and stole her purse and other belongings. The victim described her attacker to detectives as a muscular black male, 28-34 years old, with fine features and bushy eyebrows. He wore gloves and cotton sweat-type pants and used profanity. That same day, detectives learned that a person resembling this description had been seen peeking in windows and following female tenants at a nearby apartment complex. Burglaries followed two such sightings. Smith previously lived in this complex, and the manager suspected him of these activities. Based on this information, the investigation focused on Smith. In addition, Victim A identified him in a photographic lineup, even though his physical description did not match the description she gave the police. 3 Smith was arrested that day and later indicted for attempted sexual assault of Victim A and the burglary of her apartment.

One week later, Victim B, also a white female, was sexually assaulted in her home early in the morning by a black male. Victim B's attacker also demanded her ATM access number and stole bank cards and other belongings. The striking similarity to the attack on Victim A led Phoenix Police Detective Edgcombe to believe that both crimes were committed by the same person. The detective was so convinced that he felt compelled to check whether Smith was still in jail, which he was. Police later arrested Warren Isaac, who matched Victim B's description of her attacker. 4 In Isaac's apartment, the police found Victim A's purse, credit cards, and other property, as well as property stolen from a number of other victims of similar crimes. Now surely convinced that Isaac, and not Smith, had attacked Victim A, a Phoenix police sergeant urged the deputy county attorney assigned to Smith's case to drop the charges.

The county attorney's office, however, did not drop the charges. Nor did it disclose this exculpatory information to Smith's defense attorney. Instead, the case deputy conferred with other prosecutors and arranged to meet with the police sergeant and the county attorney's Criminal Trial Division Supervisor ("supervisor"). The deputy prosecutor's log clearly indicates that he was unsure how to proceed when the police relayed the exculpatory information and asked that Smith be released; it also shows that the supervisor decided to continue prosecuting Smith on the basis of Victim A's identification. 5

In response to the exculpatory evidence, the supervisor arranged a live lineup with both Smith and Isaac to determine if Victim A would again select Smith. While the lineup participants were being prepared, the police sergeant told Smith that the purpose of the lineup was to prove that he was innocent. However, police did not tell Victim A that they believed another man was the perpetrator in her case or that her property was found in another man's apartment. In fact, although she was shown Smith's clothing to see if she could identify any of it as the clothes worn during the assault--she could not--Victim A was never shown any of Isaac's clothing.

Because Victim A indicated that she could recognize the perpetrator by voice as well as sight, the lineup participants repeated statements made during the crime, such as "What's your PIN number?" and "I'm gonna kill you bitch." Victim A again identified Smith, saying that "he looks like the man that came into my house." Based on Victim A's subsequent identification, Smith remained in jail charged with her sexual assault. Smith argues that the lineup identification was tainted by the Victim's prior identification of him in the photographic lineup, and that even though part of the identification was based on a voice exemplar, the visual identification tainted the voice identification. Smith further complains that the lineup was flawed because police neither showed Isaac's picture to Victim A prior to the lineup, nor told her that there was a second suspect.

From March until late September, police conducted no further investigation of Smith's or Isaac's potential involvement in the assault on Victim A. Police found no fingerprints or other physical evidence tying Smith to Victim A, and she could not identify any of Smith's clothing as the type worn by her attacker. Thus, the only evidence implicating Smith was Victim A's identification.

In September, police assigned a new lieutenant in the sex crime division, Alton Thiele, to Smith's case. He learned of the Isaac crime, its similarity to the one for which Smith was charged, the general belief of the police detectives that Smith was not guilty, and that the police had relayed this information to the county attorney's office with a request that the charges be dropped. Thiele had a meeting with the deputy county attorney and the police sergeant on September 30 and again requested that the charges against Smith be dropped. After the meeting, the case prosecutor wrote in his log:

Meeting with [sergeant] k his lieutenant Al Thiele. They requested that the charges be dismissed since they believe we have the wrong guy and their captain sent them k concurs--also Det. Marco Ling k Mike Sechez both believe Defendant is the wrong guy--they all feel its (sic) Warren Isaac.... We agreed to let defendant take polygraph--if he passed we would dismiss.

The results of the polygraph administered to Smith approximately nine months after his initial arrest were inconclusive. Nevertheless, the deputy county attorney moved to dismiss the charges against Smith based on new evidence. City of Phoenix, 180 Ariz. at 478, 885 P.2d at 166. 6 On October 8, 1991, the County dropped the charges against Smith and he was released from jail. His release occurred after nine months' incarceration, the last eight served after the police informed the county attorney's office of Isaac's arrest and probable involvement in the assault on Victim A. Only after releasing Smith from jail did the County provide Smith's defense counsel with the exculpatory reports of Isaac's arrest.

Smith then filed an action against the City of Phoenix, Phoenix Detectives Edgcombe and Sechez, and Maricopa County alleging that his civil rights were violated under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; he also asserted state tort claims seeking damages for negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract, malicious prosecution, false arrest, and false imprisonment. Defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims on the basis of absolute immunity.

The trial court analyzed the claims against Defendants by dividing the alleged torts into two time frames: the initial arrest and detention, and the detention and other acts occurring after February 19, 1991, when Victim A's property was discovered in Isaac's apartment. As to the initial arrest and detention, the trial court granted summary judgment for the City and the detectives on the basis of absolute immunity. Likewise, the trial court concluded that the County had absolute immunity for the initial charging decision and detention. However, the court found that all Defendants may be liable for the acts that occurred after February 19,...

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