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Nicholson v. City of Los Angeles

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

August 21, 2019

Geraldine Nicholson; Jose Fernando Huerta; J. H., a minor by and through his guardian ad litem, Jose Fernando Huerta; J. N. G., a minor by and through his guardian ad litem, Geraldine Nicholson, Plaintiffs-Appellees,
v.
City of Los Angeles; Everardo Amaral, individually and in his official capacity as a Police Officer of the Los Angeles Police Department, Defendants and Miguel Gutierrez, individually and in his official capacity as a Police Officer of the Los Angeles Police Department, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued and Submitted March 4, 2019 Pasadena, California

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Dean D. Pregerson, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 2:15-cv-07594-DDP-RAO

          Denise L. Rocawich (argued) and James R. Touchstone, Jones & Mayer, Fullerton, California, for Defendant-Appellant.

          Herbert-John S. Hayden (argued) and John W. Harris, Harris & Associates, Los Angeles, California, for Plaintiffs-Appellees.

          Before: Andrew J. Kleinfeld, R. Guy Cole, Jr., [*] and Jacqueline H. Nguyen, Circuit Judges.

         SUMMARY [**]

         Civil Rights

         The panel reversed in part and affirmed in part the district court's denial of qualified immunity to a Los Angeles Police Department officer in an action brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of plaintiffs' Fourth Amendment rights to be free from excessive force and unreasonable seizure and violations of their Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights.

         Plaintiffs were among a group of teenagers who had met in an alleyway near their school to listen to and sing rap music. One of the teenagers, plaintiff J.N.G., was shot by defendant Gutierrez after Gutierrez mistook a plastic Airsoft replica gun held by one of the other teenagers for an actual gun. After the shooting, officers detained the group for over five hours while they investigated. J.N.G. and J.H. filed a lawsuit and the district court denied qualified immunity on plaintiffs' Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment claims.

         Addressing the Fourth Amendment claim, the panel agreed with the district court that under the circumstances, plaintiffs' continued detention for five hours after the shooting-well after any probable cause would have dissipated-and the use of handcuffs throughout the duration of the detention violated plaintiffs' clearly established Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unlawful arrest and excessive force. The panel rejected Gutierrez's argument that while he participated in the initial handcuffing and detention, he was not responsible for any subsequent constitutional violation because he played no role in that conduct. The panel held that an officer can be held liable where he is just one participant in a sequence of events that gives rise to a constitutional violation. Here, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, Gutierrez was more than a "mere bystander" in the alleged constitutional violations. The panel affirmed the district court's denial of qualified immunity on the Fourth Amendment violations because, ultimately, a reasonable jury could conclude that Gutierrez played an integral role in the unlawfully prolonged detention and sustained handcuffing of plaintiffs.

         Addressing the Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process claim, the panel held that, viewing the totality of the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the shooting violated plaintiffs' due process rights. Under the circumstances, a rational finder of fact could find that Gutierrez's use of deadly force shocked the conscience and was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, the panel held that because no analogous case existed at the time of the shooting, the district court erred by denying Gutierrez qualified immunity for this claim. The panel accordingly reversed the district court and remanded for an entry of qualified immunity on the Fourteenth Amendment claim.

          OPINION

          NGUYEN, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         On the morning of February 10, 2015, four teenagers met in an alleyway near their school to listen to and sing rap music. As the teenagers-Michael Sanders, Abdul Wooten, J.N.G., and J.H.[1]-stood in a tight circle dancing and rapping, Sanders was holding a plastic Airsoft replica gun with a bright orange tip as a prop. Just as they turned off the music and were getting ready to head to school, J.N.G. was shot by Officer Michael Gutierrez of the Los Angeles Police Department ("LAPD"). Officer Gutierrez fired his weapon because he mistook Sanders's replica gun for an actual gun. Gutierrez fired multiple shots, one of which hit J.N.G. in the back. After the shooting, officers detained the group for over five hours while they investigated.

         J.N.G. and J.H. (collectively, "Plaintiffs") filed a lawsuit against the officers, the LAPD, and the City of Los Angeles, alleging violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments and various state laws. The district court denied qualified immunity on two of Plaintiffs' constitutional claims. Gutierrez appeals. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

         BACKGROUND[2]

         At around 7:15 a.m. on February 10, 2015, J.N.G., J.H., Michael Sanders, and Abdul Wooten met in an alley at the corner of 10th Avenue and Florence Avenue in Los Angeles, CA, a few blocks from their high school. They regularly gathered in that alleyway before and after school to listen to music and freestyle rap. That morning, as they were rapping and dancing in a circle, Sanders was holding a plastic toy gun with a bright orange tip. J.N.G., J.H., and Wooten maintain that Sanders kept the gun pointed downward around waist-level and did not fire the gun that morning. At approximately 7:40 a.m., the teenagers turned off the music and began preparing to head to school.

          Around this time, Officer Everardo Amaral was driving down 10th Avenue in an unmarked car with his partner, Officer Gutierrez. From the passenger seat, Gutierrez "saw a person (later identified as Michael Sanders) pointing . . . a blue steel handgun at another person (later identified as Plaintiff J.H.)." Gutierrez, believing that J.H. was "being robbed at gun point or was about to be murdered," yelled "Gun, gun, gun!" Amaral stopped the vehicle south of the alley on 10th Avenue. Without conferring with Amaral, Gutierrez immediately jumped out of the car and ran into the alley. Amaral parked the car and followed Gutierrez. Neither officer was in uniform.

         Gutierrez claims he identified himself as an LAPD officer and commanded Sanders to drop the gun. However, J.H., J.N.G., and Wooten all contend that Gutierrez did not identify himself or make any verbal commands prior to shooting his weapon. A few seconds after he entered the alley, Officer Gutierrez fired at least three shots, one of which hit J.N.G. in the back. J.N.G. and J.H. contend that Gutierrez fired his gun with one hand while running toward them, while Gutierrez stated that he fired only after stopping a few feet away from the group. When the shots were fired, J.H. was about to put on his school uniform, and J.N.G. was spraying cologne on his face. The four of them had been standing in a tight circle, "within a foot or so of each other." Sanders soon turned and dropped the toy gun, though the parties dispute whether this occurred before or after Gutierrez fired.

         Shortly after Officer Gutierrez fired, Officer Amaral arrived and requested three additional units. Amaral also requested an ambulance when he realized that J.N.G. had been shot. The officers held the group at gunpoint, face down on the ground. The parties dispute how far the dropped "gun" was from the teenagers when they were on the ground, but neither officer picked it up or moved it away from them. While on the ground, J.H. shouted that the gun was "not even a real gun" and repeatedly asked why the officers shot at them and "What did we do wrong?" The officers remained silent in response to his questions, with dumbfounded expressions on their faces. Responding officers soon arrived, and they searched and handcuffed the group. Gutierrez was "involved in the decision to handcuff them." Officer Amaral later explained in his deposition that the detention of the boys was "[f]or [a] weapons violation." Officers Gutierrez and Amaral were separated and monitored soon after additional units arrived on the scene. J.H. remained in handcuffs throughout ...


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