Fetters v. Cnty. of L. A., B252287

Decision Date08 January 2016
Docket NumberB253082,B252287
Citation196 Cal.Rptr.3d 848,243 Cal.App.4th 825
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
Parties William FETTERS, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants and Appellants.

Collins, Collins, Muir + Stewart, Melinda W. Ebelhar, Nicole Davis Tinkham, Catherine M. Mathers, Christian E. Foy Nagy, Eric C. Brown and David C. Moore for Defendants and Appellants.

Law Offices of Goldberg & Gage, Bradley C. Gage, Terry M. Goldberg, Milad Sadr ; Law Offices of Robert R. Shiri, Robert R. Shiri ; Sanford M. Gage ; Benedon & Serlin, Gerald M. Serlin, Douglas G. Benedon and Wendy S. Albers for Plaintiff and Respondent.


On Sunday, May 10, 2009, when he was 15 years old, William Fetters (Fetters) was shot by a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy.

Just prior to his shooting, Fetters had been playing "cops and robbers" with friends while riding his bicycle and carrying a replica of a semiautomatic pistol. Two deputies, while responding to a trespassing call, spotted Fetters on his own with the imitation pistol riding down a sidewalk in the direction opposite to which they were traveling. The deputies made an immediate U-turn and approached Fetters in their patrol car from behind. The deputies ordered Fetters to stop, which he did. What happened next is disputed. Either Fetters complied with the deputies' directive to drop the imitation firearm or he turned toward the deputies with the replica in his hand. In either event, one of the deputies fired a single shot, wounding Fetters in the chest.

Fetters was subsequently charged with three misdemeanor accounts of brandishing an imitation firearm so as to cause the deputies and a third party fear of bodily harm. In September 2009, pursuant to a plea bargain, Fetters admitted the brandishing charges and was placed on six months informal probation. In March 2010, following his successful completion of probation, the charges against Fetters were dismissed. In May 2010, Fetters filed suit against the deputies and the County of Los Angeles (the County), alleging, among other things, violation of his federal civil rights under title 42 United States Code section 1983 (section 1983 ). Defendants, pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey (1994) 512 U.S. 477, [114 S.Ct. 2364, 129 L.Ed.2d 383] (Heck ), argued that Fetters's section 1983 claim was barred by Fetters's plea in the juvenile court proceeding. The trial court bifurcated the Heck issue from the liability phase of the case. After a six-day bench trial, the trial court ruled in favor of Fetters on the Heck issue.

A subsequent jury trial was held on only the section 1983 claim against the deputy who shot Fetters (summary judgment having been awarded to the other deputy) and the County, the latter having previously agreed that a finding against the remaining deputy on the section 1983 claim would constitute a finding that both the deputy and the County committed battery against Fetters. The jury returned a partial verdict in favor of Fetters, finding that the deputy used excessive force and awarding him approximately $1.1 million in compensatory damages; the jury, however, was unable to reach a verdict on the issue of punitive damages. In addition, Fetters was awarded over $2 million in attorney fees.

The County appeals from both the judgment and the attorney fees award. One of the County's central contentions on appeal is that the trial court erred by concluding that Fetters's section 1983 claim was not barred under Heck, supra, 512 U.S. 477, 114 S.Ct. 2364. We agree and remand for further proceedings consistent with our holding.

I. Fetters's criminal proceeding

On August 3, 2009, a criminal petition was filed against Fetters. Fetters was charged with three counts of brandishing an imitation firearm in violation of Penal Code section 417.4.1 Each count was identical except for the names of the three different alleged victims: the two deputies, Stephen Sorrow (Sorrow) and Andrew Campbell (Campbell), and a third person. For example, the count regarding Sorrow, the officer that fired the shot that wounded

Fetters, states as follows: "On or about 05/10/2009 within the County of Los Angeles, the crime of BRANDISHING A REPLICA GUN, in violation of PENAL CODE 417.4, a Misdemeanor, was committed by said minor, who did unlawfully draw and exhibit an imitation firearm in a threatening manner against S. SORROW in such a way as to cause a reasonable person apprehension and fear of bodily harm." At the August hearing, Fetters appeared with counsel and denied the petition's allegations.

On September 14, 2009, Fetters appeared once more in juvenile court, again represented by counsel. The minute order from the September hearing indicates that Fetters changed his plea and admitted the charges against him—the preprinted minute order has two boxes that the court can check to record the juvenile defendant's plea: "admits" or "pleads no contest." The "admits" box is checked. The juvenile court also checked boxes indicating, among other things that Fetters understood "the nature of the conduct alleged in the petition and the possible consequences of an admission," that his admission was "freely and voluntarily made," and that "there is a factual basis for the admission." The juvenile court further found that "[t]he petition is ... true and said petition is sustained."

The minute order from the September hearing indicates further that the court "read and considered the Probation Officer's Report filed herein and said report is admitted into evidence by reference." A probation report prepared on September 10, 2009, contains the following summary of the "elements and circumstances" of the charges against Fetters: "On May 10, 2009 at 7:52 p.m., the minor was riding his bicycle and holding what appeared to be a firearm. The minor was contacted by deputies and instructed to put the gun down. The Minor pointed the gun at the deputies in a threatening manner. The minor was shot by Deputy Sorrow, and then transported to Holy Cross Hospital for treatment. The firearm was later identified as a plastic replica pistol, with simulated wood grips and a painted black barrell [sic.]." The probation report identified both deputies as "victims" of Fetters misconduct. The probation report recommended that Fetters be placed on informal probation without wardship.

At the September hearing, the juvenile court, over the objection of the prosecutor, placed Fetters on informal probation without wardship for six months.2 Fetters accepted the terms and conditions of his probation. According to Fetters's counsel, he changed his plea from denying the allegations to admitting them in order to receive six months of probation.

On March 15, 2010, six months later, the juvenile court granted Fetters's motion to withdraw his plea and dismiss the case, finding that Fetters "successfully completed all terms and conditions" of his probation. Accordingly, the juvenile court "terminated" its prior order and dismissed the petition against Fetters.

II. Fetters's civil proceeding

On May 17, 2010, Fetters filed his initial complaint against the deputies and the County, alleging, inter alia, negligence, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, as well as a violation of "civil" and "constitutional" rights."3 Fetters's core allegations were that the deputies used "excessive and unreasonable force" against him and that the County had been "negligent in the administration, supervision and entrustment" of the deputies. With regard to the allegedly excessive and unreasonable force, Fetters alleged that he was shot "in his back" after he dropped the "toy cap gun."

On January 6, 2012, the trial court granted summary judgment as to Campbell, but denied it as to Sorrow and the County, finding that "there is a triable issue as to the basis for Plaintiff's conviction and specifically whether he brandished the gun at the time he was shot by Deputy Sorrow. [Citation.] Thus, assuming Plaintiff did plead guilty to a violation of Penal Code § 417.4, a trial or Heck hearing would be required to determine the factual basis for the [plaintiff's] conviction."

A Heck mini-trial was held over the course of six days in January and February 2012. With regard to whether Fetters pointed the imitation firearm at the deputies immediately before being shot, the testimony was conflicting. On the one hand, Fetters and a nonparty adult eyewitness testified that he never pointed the gun at the deputies prior to getting shot, with Fetters affirmatively stating that he had dropped the gun at the direction of the deputies prior to being shot. On the other hand, both deputies testified that Fetters not only had the gun in his hand before being shot, but that as he turned toward them he pointed the gun at them.4 Adding to the conflicting testimony, a nonparty adult eyewitness testified that Fetters did not drop the gun before being shot and that he did turn toward the deputies; however, this witness could not tell if Fetters was pointing the gun toward the deputies when he turned toward them.

There was, however, general agreement on the how long the encounter between the deputies and Fetters lasted. According to Campbell, from the time he spotted Fetters riding his bicycle in the opposite direction that the patrol car was traveling until Sorrow shot Fetters a total of just "30 seconds" elapsed. According to Sorrow, from the time he began issuing commands to Fetters until he shot Fetters "probably seven seconds or less" elapsed. According to the nonparty witnesses, the incident between Fetters and the deputies —from the time the deputies pulled up behind Fetters on his bicycle until he was shot—lasted a "few seconds," "three maybe four seconds"; it was an "instant. It was seconds. Everything from the beginning to end it just went very quickly."

With regard to the criminal proceeding itself, there was even more agreement. Both Fetters's defense counsel and the...

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