Gonzales v. City of Phoenix

Decision Date19 August 2002
Docket NumberNo. CV-01-0170-PR.,CV-01-0170-PR.
Citation203 Ariz. 152,52 P.3d 184
PartiesAlex GONZALES, a married man, Plaintiff/Appellee, v. CITY OF PHOENIX, a municipal corporation; James J. Finnerty, Defendants/Appellants.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Debus, Kazan & Westerhausen, Ltd., by Larry L. Debus, Tracey Westerhausen and Leslie O'Hara, Phoenix, Attorneys for Appellee.

Jones, Skelton & Hochuli, by William R. Jones, Jr., Randall H. Warner, Phoenix, Attorneys for Appellants.

OPINION

JONES, Chief Justice.

INTRODUCTION

¶ 1 Alex Gonzales, manager of the Central Pawn Store in Phoenix, was charged with one count of trafficking in stolen property and one count of theft. The trial court dismissed both counts with prejudice after the state determined there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction. Gonzales sued the City of Phoenix and James Finnerty, a detective with the Phoenix Police Department, alleging malicious prosecution. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Gonzales for $1.4 million. The trial court denied defendants' motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV).1 In a split memorandum decision, the court of appeals reversed, holding as a matter of law that the defendants had probable cause to believe Gonzales committed the underlying criminal offenses. We granted review to decide whether the court of appeals applied the correct legal standard.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 2 A trial court's denial of a motion for JNOV will be reversed only if it reflects a manifest abuse of discretion. See Hutcherson v. City of Phoenix, 192 Ariz. 51, 53, 961 P.2d 449, 451,

¶¶ 12-13 (1998); Blakely Oil, Inc. v. Wells Truckways, Ltd., 83 Ariz. 274, 278, 320 P.2d 464, 466 (1958). In reviewing a jury verdict, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to sustaining the verdict, and if any substantial evidence could lead reasonable persons to find the ultimate facts sufficient to support the verdict, we will affirm the judgment. Hutcherson, 192 Ariz. at 53,

961 P.2d at 451, ¶ 13. We have jurisdiction pursuant to article VI, § 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) section 12-2102 (2001).

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
A. Facts

¶ 3 On January 11, 1994, Robert Dovilla offered to sell a set of Ping golf clubs to Central Pawn. Dovilla was quoted a price of $160.00, but, before proceeding with the proposed transaction, a store clerk identified Dovilla as a person who had previously sold a stolen generator to the store. The clerk notified another employee who called the Phoenix Police Department's pawn detail to report the situation and to determine if the clubs were stolen. A detective at the pawn detail ran the serial numbers through its database, but the clubs were not listed as stolen; therefore, the employee was told that the store could purchase the clubs.

¶ 4 While the employee was on the phone, the clerk began filling out a transaction ticket. In order to have sufficient time to obtain relevant police information on stolen property, store policy was to stall a questionable customer by beginning routine paperwork and obtaining the seller's signature on the ticket. After obtaining Dovilla's signature, the employee confronted him about the stolen generator transaction. Initially, Dovilla denied any knowledge of the generator. He then changed his story and asked the employee if he was going to get paid. The employee replied that the store needed to sort everything out before finalizing the purchase. Dovilla then talked to Gonzales. Gonzales testified that Dovilla asked to speak with the owner, but when he was told that the owner was unavailable, Dovilla left the store, leaving the clubs behind. As a result, Gonzales told the employee to place a ten-day hold ticket on the golf clubs pursuant to A.R.S. section 44-1624(F),2 and to store them in a secure location.

¶ 5 Later the same day, Dovilla returned to the store to reclaim the clubs. Gonzales refused his request and invited him to call the shop owner or the police pawn shop detail to discuss the situation. Later in the week, the store sent the original transaction ticket with Dovilla's signature to the pawn shop detail. The words "stolen property" were crossed out based on the information furnished by the police detail that the clubs were not listed as stolen.

¶ 6 The following week, James Finnerty, a detective with the Phoenix Police Department, went to the pawn shop after being notified that a portion of the transaction ticket had been crossed out. He questioned the employee about the clubs and asked to see a copy of the ticket. Finnerty told store employees, including Gonzales, that the golf clubs had not been placed on an official police hold. Other events on that day are disputed. Gonzales testified that Finnerty tore the tag off the clubs and told him he could proceed to sell them. This testimony was corroborated by other store employees who noticed the tag was missing after Finnerty left the store. Finnerty denied this, but a fellow police officer, contradicting Finnerty, testified that Finnerty had in fact admitted to him that he told Gonzales to sell the clubs.

¶ 7 Finnerty later called the store and asked why the store had purchased golf clubs they suspected were stolen. Gonzales informed Finnerty that the store did not purchase the clubs, even though the ticket indicated a purchase price of $160. Finnerty told Gonzales that he was placing a ninety-day police hold on the clubs. Finnerty then ran a second check on the clubs and discovered that a set of Ping clubs had been reported stolen the day Dovilla attempted to make his sale.

¶ 8 Finnerty later interviewed Dovilla, who admitted involvement in the generator and golf club transactions but denied knowing the items were stolen. Dovilla told Finnerty the store had indicated it would offset the value of the golf clubs against the loss for the stolen generator. He also stated that three employees had a conference behind the counter before quoting him the price of $160.

¶ 9 Two days later, Finnerty returned to the store with his partner. Finnerty questioned Gonzales about the earlier generator transaction and whether the store intended to offset the loss. Gonzales told Finnerty that he was not present when the generator incident took place and that the store would attempt to sell the clubs only if they were not stolen. However, when Finnerty appeared before the grand jury, he testified to the contrary, that during the interview, he told Gonzales that he, Gonzales, "had every reason in the world to believe those golf clubs... were stolen," to which Gonzales allegedly responded,"absolutely."

¶ 10 Based on Finnerty's testimony, the grand jury indicted Gonzales on one count of reckless trafficking in stolen property and one count of theft. A person who recklessly traffics in stolen property commits second degree trafficking. A.R.S. § 13-2307(A). Theft can occur in various ways. A person who "knowingly controls the property of another with the intent to deprive the other person of such property" commits theft, as does a person who controls another's property "knowing or having reason to know" that it was stolen. A.R.S. § 13-1802(A)(1) and (5). After certain evidentiary rulings by the trial judge in the criminal prosecution, the state moved for dismissal. On April 3, 1995, the trial court dismissed both counts with prejudice.

B. The Malicious Prosecution Action

¶ 11 Gonzales brought the instant civil complaint against the City of Phoenix and Finnerty, alleging malicious prosecution. The court submitted the issue of probable cause to a jury, which awarded Gonzales $1.4 million. After the judgment was entered, defendants filed the motion for JNOV, asserting that probable cause existed as a matter of law to support the initiation of criminal proceedings against Gonzales. The trial judge denied the motion and defendants appealed.

C. Opinion of the Court of Appeals

¶ 12 The court of appeals reversed the judgment. A majority of the panel concluded as a matter of law that the underlying criminal action was supported by sufficient evidence of probable cause. The majority determined that the issue whether defendants' JNOV motion was properly denied would best be resolved under a probable cause analysis, ruling that the existence of probable cause is a question of law to be determined de novo by the reviewing court without deferring to the findings of the trial court. Relying on a few discrete facts, the majority held that evidence of probable cause was sufficient to support the underlying criminal charges. In dissent, Judge Garbarino argued that the majority ignored the requirement that the facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to Gonzales, the non-moving party.

DISCUSSION
A. Probable Cause—The Standard

¶ 13 To prevail on a malicious prosecution claim, a plaintiff must prove that the underlying criminal action was brought without probable cause. In the context of malicious prosecution, probable cause is defined as "a reasonable ground of suspicion, supported by circumstances sufficient to warrant an ordinarily prudent man in believing the accused is guilty of the offense.... The test generally applied is: upon the appearances presented to the defendant, would a reasonably prudent man have instituted or continued the proceeding?" McClinton v. Rice, 76 Ariz. 358, 367, 265 P.2d 425, 431 (1953) (citations omitted).

¶ 14 Generally, the court decides as a matter of law whether the facts are sufficient to establish probable cause. However, when conflicting probable cause evidence exists, the court may submit the issue to the jury in the form of a hypothetical question. Bradshaw v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 157 Ariz. 411, 419, 758 P.2d 1313, 1321 (1988) ("[T]he court may instruct the jury hypothetically, telling them what facts will constitute probable cause.") (citations omitted); Sarwark Motor Sales, Inc. v. Woolridge, 88 Ariz. 173, 177-78, 354 P.2d 34, 36-37 (1960) ...

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