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Ryba v. Nelson

United States District Court, D. Arizona

December 19, 2018

Robyn E. Ryba, Plaintiff,
Cesar Nelson, Defendant.


          Cindy K. Jorgenson, United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court are the Motions in Limine (Doc. 41) taken under advisement during the November 28, 2018, hearing.

         Motion in Limine Re: Acquittal

         The parties disagree whether evidence regarding the acquittal should be admitted. They agree the seminal case is Borunda v. Richmond, 885 F.2d 1384 (9th Cir. 1988). That case states:

Evidence of an acquittal is not generally admissible in a subsequent civil action between the same parties since it constitutes a “negative sort of conclusion lodged in a finding of failure of the prosecution to sustain the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” S. Gard, 2 Jones on Evidence, § 12:25, p. 391 (6th ed. 1972). Here, however, the district court did not admit the evidence as proof of the facts upon which the acquittals were based. Evidence of the acquittals was admitted solely for the purpose of showing that the plaintiffs incurred damages in the form of attorneys' fees in successfully defending against the state criminal charges, and that the fees charged were reasonable in light of the success achieved.
Even if evidence of the acquittals was relevant, this evidence should have been excluded if its probative value was substantially outweighed by the likelihood of unfair prejudice. See Fed.R.Evid. 403. In this regard, trial courts have “very broad discretion in applying Rule 403 and, absent abuse, the exercise of its discretion will not be disturbed on appeal.” Liew v. Official Receiver and Liquidator, 685 F.2d 1192, 1195 (9th Cir.1982).

Borunda v. Richmond, 885 F.2d 1384, 1387-88 (9th Cir. 1988). What seems significant in Borunda is that the evidence was admissible because it went to the issue of damages (e.g., legal fees in criminal case). Plaintiff Robyn E. Ryba (“Ryba”) similarly argues evidence of her acquittal is relevant to her request for damages.

         The defense argues, however, that this case is more factually similar to Solomon v. Herminghaus, No. 213CV00115GEBCKD, 2015 WL 13667569, at *2 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 14, 2015). In Solomon, it appears the fact that a false arrest claim remained pending in Borunda was significant to the determination that the evidence was relevant to damages. Here, the Court has already determined there was probable cause for the arrest . . . in other words, even if it was determined there was excessive force in this case, the criminal proceeding would not be set aside . . . any damages are not the result of a false arrest, but of alleged conduct irrespective of valid criminal charges.

         Additionally, the Court agrees admission of the acquittal is not appropriate as proof of the facts upon which the acquittal was based. However, the Court finds the evidence is relevant as to the motive of Ryba in bringing this lawsuit. See Fed.R.Evid. 401 (Evidence is relevant if “it has any tendency to make a fact more or less probable” and “the fact is of consequence[.]”). The danger of unfair prejudice to Ryba is more likely to result if the evidence is excluded: the jury could infer Ryba's actions in bringing this suit were for vengeful and vindictive reasons, as opposed to possible prejudice to Cesar Nelson (“Nelson”) (e.g., he acted inappropriately in arresting Ryba). See Fed.R.Evid. 403.

         However, the Court recognizes that Nelson argues that the admission of this evidence will result in the need to present evidence of whether probable cause existed to arrest/charge Ryba. In determining whether the relevant value of this evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of “confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time, or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence[, ]” id., the Court considers that it has previously found, as a matter of law, that probable cause existed to arrest Ryba. In such circumstances, the Court finds the concerns raised by Nelson may be addressed by an instruction to the jury that probable cause existed to arrest Ryba. The Court will direct the parties to include any proposed instruction or any objection to such an instruction with the parties' proposed jury instructions.

         Motion in Limine Re: Internal Affairs Documents

         The defense argues that the evidence discussed herein was untimely disclosed. Ryba argues, however, it was late because Nelson's deposition was delayed due to the schedules of Nelson and defense counsel. She further asserts that she had no basis to discover this evidence until Nelson's deposition. The Court declines to preclude the evidence solely on this basis.

         The internal affairs documents can be summarized as follows: One incident involved force (a high risk stop where Nelson and other officers removed the occupants at gunpoint), but it was determined that the force had been justified. One complaint asserted Nelson had acted disrespectfully, but when the fire chief (who had also responded) corroborated that the officers had acted appropriately, the complaint was withdrawn. Other complaints involve damage to police department property. None of the internal affairs complaints involved inappropriate touching.

         The Court finds two categories of the internal affairs documents to be relevant. Specifically, the 2012 complaint where a person cited for a traffic violation complained that Nelson did not allow her to read the citation before signing it is similar to the alleged facts in this case. The Court notes, however, the complaint was closed as unsustained. The other category is videos that were not timely uploaded. Here, the video was timely uploaded, but due to a technical problem (according to the defense), the ...

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