In Hill v. City of Fountain Valley,[1] the Ninth Circuit concluded that although officers likely did not have probable cause to arrest a plaintiff for obstruction, qualified immunity shielded the officers from liability because there was no clearly established law at the time forbidding their actions, given the plaintiff’s evasive behavior that appeared to interfere with an urgent investigation into a potential kidnapping.

Background

At night on April 30, 2019, Benjamin Hill was taking his wife for a surprise anniversary dinner.  As he drove her to the restaurant, someone called 9-1-1 at approximately 9 p.m. to report a dark grey Ford Mustang being driven erratically by a black-haired white male between the age of twenty-five and thirty.  The caller also reported a blindfolded female passenger.  Based on the license plate number provided by the 9-1-1 caller, Fountain Valley police officers learned that the car belonged to Benjamin and obtained his home address.

To check the well-being of the passenger, Officers Stuart Chase and Gannon Kelly drove to Benjamin’s home, which he shared with his parents, Stephen, and Teresa.  Soon after the officers arrived, Teresa pulled into the driveway.  The officers asked whether Benjamin lived there and drove a grey Mustang.  Teresa said yes to both questions and said Benjamin was not home.  The officers asked for Benjamin’s phone number, but Teresa did not give it.  Stephen Hill exited the home while the officers spoke with Teresa.  The officers told the couple that they were investigating a report of erratic driving and asked again for Benjamin’s phone number.  Teresa went inside and tried to reach Benjamin.[2]  In response to Stephen’s demand that the officers tell him “what was really going on,” the officers told him that they wanted to talk to Benjamin, citing the report of a blindfolded female passenger in his car.  Stephen responded that Benjamin was out with his wife and offered to pass along the officers’ business cards.  The officers told Stephen to go inside and to return with Benjamin’s phone number.

While waiting outside, the officers noticed someone movinginside the house by the bedroom window.  Moving to investigate further, Officer Chase saw a young male who matched Benjamin’s description.  Officer Chase told this person to exit the house, but the young male walked into a hallway, out of sight.  Then Stephen entered the bedroom.  Officer Chase asked Stephen, “Who’s the other person here?”  Not hearing the question, Stephen closed the curtains, hoping to keep the officers’ flashlights from disturbing his granddaughter.

The officers later learned that the young man inside the house was not Benjamin but his brother, Brett.  However, at the time, the officers at that time suspected that Benjamin’s parents were hiding Benjamin from law enforcement.  Through a window on the front door, the officers saw Teresa, Stephen, and an unidentified male they suspected to be Benjamin.  The officers checked to see if the door was locked.  At this point, they told the unidentified male to exit the house.  According to the Hills, the officers then threatened to arrest all of them for obstruction if they did not leave the house.

While Brett and Teresa remained inside, Stephen stepped outside, closed the door behind him, and told the officers they could not come in.  The officers immediately grabbed Stephen, led him to the front lawn, and pushed Stephen to the ground as they handcuffed him.  While being brought to the grassy ground, Stephen’s glasses cut him on the forehead.  Officer Kelly held Stephen down by kneeling on him.  Several seconds after the officers led Stephen away from the front door, Brett and Teresa left the house to check on Stephen.  Stephen was arrested for obstructing a police officer.

The Hills sued the officers, alleging, among other things, violations of their Fourth Amendment rights against excessive force on behalf of Stephen and unreasonable seizure on behalf of all the Hills under 42 U.S.C. section 1983.  The District Court granted summary judgment to the officers on these and other claims.  The Hills appealed.

Discussion

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals first addressed the unreasonable seizure claims.  Brett, Teresa, and Stephen contended that the police officers violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizure when the officers ordered them to exit the home or face arrest for obstruction.

The Court explained that a seizure occurs when there is “either physical force . . . or, where that is absent, submission to the assertion of authority.”  California v. Hodari D., 499 U.S. 621, 626 (1991).  Under the threat of arrest, the officers demanded that the young male and Benjamin’s parents leave the house.  While Stephen complied and exited the house, Teresa and Brett stayed inside and locked the door behind Stephen.  Teresa and Brett thus did not submit to the officers’ demand to leave the house, and only left in response to Stephen’s arrest thereafter.  The Court accordingly concluded that Brett and Teresa were not seized and their Fourth Amendment claims failed.

The Ninth Circuit then considered Stephen’s unreasonable seizure claim.  The Court initially noted that a lawful arrest requires officers to have probable cause, which exists where the “available facts suggest a fair probability that the suspect has committed a crime.”  Tatum v. City & Cnty. of San Francisco, 441 F.3d 1090, 1094 (9th Cir. 2006).  Moreover, law enforcement can make a warrantless in-home arrest if officers face exigent circumstances and have probable cause supporting the arrest.  Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 589-90 (1980).  In determining whether the officers had probable cause to arrest Stephen for obstruction of justice under California state law, the Ninth Circuit observed that “under California law that even an outright refusal to cooperate with police officers cannot create adequate grounds for police intrusion without more.”  Velazquez v. City of Long Beach, 793 F.3d 1010, 1023 (9th Cir. 2015).  Because Stephen’s actions were similar to other refusals to cooperate that the California Supreme Court had found lawful,[3] the Ninth Circuit concluded that the officers likely did not have probable cause to arrest him for obstruction of justice, even if there were exigent circumstances.

However, the Ninth Circuit observed even if there was such a violation, qualified immunity “shields government actors from civil liability . . . if ‘their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.’”  Castro v. County of Los Angeles, 833 F.3d 1060, 1066 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982)).  The Ninth Circuit had previously held that qualified immunity applies when it was objectively reasonable for an officer to believehe or she had probable cause to make the arrest.  Rosenbaum v. Washoe Cnty., 663 F.3d 1071, 1076 (9th Cir. 2011).  Rephrasing this idea, the Ninth Circuit stated that “the question in determining whether qualified immunity applies is whether all reasonable officers would agree that there was no probable cause in this instance.”  Id. at 1078 (citing Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 741 (2011)).

Here, the Court concluded that qualified immunity applied because not all reasonable police officers would believe that they lacked probable cause to make Stephen’s arrest, especially given his evasive behavior that appeared to interfere with an urgent investigation into a potential kidnapping (for example, Stephen closed the curtains as Officer Chase asked a question about the unidentified young male’s identity).  Though the officers here were mistaken about a potential kidnapping happening, the Circuit Court did not want to second-guess the split-second “judgments made by law enforcement officers in the heat of their battle against crime.”  United States v. Valencia-Amezcua, 278 F.3d 901, 906 (9th Cir. 2002).[4]  Because the Hills did not provide any factually analogous case clearly establishing that the officers’ actions were unlawful under these circumstances, the Ninth Circuit concluded that qualified immunity applied here.

The Ninth Circuit also held that Stephen’s excessive force claim failed because he suffered only a minor injury when pushed to the grassy lawn during a tense encounter.  The Court found that Stephen’s injuries were minor in comparison to the injuries suffered by the plaintiff in Jackson v. City of Bremerton, 268 F.3d 646 (9th Cir. 2001), in which the Ninth Circuit had held that police officers did not use excessive force during an arrest for obstruction involving a misdemeanor crime.  The officers in Jackson pepper sprayed the plaintiff, tackled her, handcuffed her, and intentionally placed her in a hot patrol car, and the situation the officers faced was more dangerous than the situation at the Hills’ home.  After finding against Stephen Hill on his other claims, the Ninth Circuit accordingly affirmed the District Court’s summary judgment.

Dissenting in part, Judge Tashima would have reversed the dismissal of Stephen’s unlawful seizure claim.  The dissenting judge maintained that clearly established precedent prohibited the officers from making the warrantless arrest at Stephen’s home, when they did not have probable cause, there were no exigent circumstances and it was clearly established, among other things, that at the time even an outright refusal to cooperate with police officers did not justify the warrantless arrest here.

HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY

The dissent and majority disagreed on whether the facts were “unique” here, and the consequent determination of whether clearly established precedent existed to apply qualified immunity in this case.  The majority believed that the dissent minimized the unique nature of the instant case by saying that it is clearly established precedent that a warrantless in-home arrest is illegal when there is no probable cause and exigent circumstances.  The majority asserted that the Supreme Court had cautioned the Circuit, especially in the Fourth Amendment context, from reciting a general rule and using it to deny qualified immunity.  City of Escondido v. Emmons, 139 S. Ct. 500, 503-04 (2019).

This ruling represents a significant victory for law enforcement.  The Court recognized the dilemma that officers are many times put to in the field when circumstances and time pressure force decisions which generally should be immunized by the doctrine of qualified immunity to allow officers discretion to perform their difficult tasks without fear of liability exposure.

As always, if you want to discuss any of this in greater detail, do not hesitate to contact James Touchstone at jrt@jones-mayer.com or by telephone at (714) 446-1400.

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[1] Hill v. City of Fountain Valley, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 13517 (9th Cir. June 1, 2023).

[2] This opinion’s description of the facts does not indicate whether the officers were aware that when Teresa went inside, she would try to contact Benjamin.

[3] See People v. Wetzel, 11 Cal. 3d 104, 113 Cal. Rptr. 32, 520 P.2d 416, 419 (Cal. 1974); People v. Cressey, 2 Cal. 3d 836, 87 Cal. Rptr. 699, 471 P.2d 19, 23 n.6 (Cal. 1970).

[4] See also Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 804-05 (1971) (finding that officers acted reasonably based on the totality of the circumstances, including a good-faith, but ultimately mistaken, belief that they were arresting the correct suspect).