Friday, June 17, 2005

Truong v. Orange County Sheriff's Dept. (Cal. Ct. App. - June 8, 2005)

Please don't wrap yourself up in the flag. Particularly when you're wrong. Here, the plaintiff engages in a bit of hyperbole. To which Justice Moore responds with language that is itself overdone and -- more importantly -- both messes up the law and does a disservice to the cause to which she refers.

Here's what happens. Plaintiff is arrested for shoplifting, and as she's getting booked, is ordered to get naked and shower in front of a ton of other people. She doesn't particularly feel like participating in a group shower scene, so she refuses, but then four deputies show up with nightsticks and demand more forcefully. At which point she decides: "Hey, maybe a group shower is better than a shower of beatings," so she decides to comply. But as she's taking off her sweater, as she has her sweater up around her neck and is removing her arms out of the sleeves, the deputies jump and start wailing on her, and (among other things) fracture her arm in doing so. Not a nice way to end your shower, and -- accordingly to her -- entirely unnecessary.

Anyway, that's plaintiff's story. So she files a lawsuit claiming excessive force. But Justice Moore holds that she loses as a matter of law since she subsequently pled guilty to resisting the exercise of a lawful duty in violation of Penal Code 148.

But Justice Moore misreads the precedent she cites. Sure, several cases -- entirely properly -- hold that you can't claim, for example, that the police arrested you unlawfully (e.g., without probable cause) if you've been convicted of the underlying crime and haven't obtained a reversal. Of course that's right. That's regular issue preclusion. You can't sue for X when your conviction conclusively establishes that X is untrue.

But that's not the present case. Plaintiff isn't alleging that she was wrongfully convicted. She's saying that even though she may have illegally refused to comply with a lawful order (i.e., to disrobe), that didn't give the officers the right to beat the crap out of her and fracture her arm; e.g., to engage in excessive force. And she's right. The validity of her conviction says nothing about the validity of her claim of excessive force.

This is not someone who's saying that the police started wailing on her for no reason and that the only reason she fought back was because they were illegally touching her. Those types of claims would indeed be barred by a convicted for, say, assault on a police officer, since you're allowed to assault someone who's illegally beating you. But plaintiff wasn't convicted of fighting back or of anything other than unlawfully obeying an order; i.e., the order to get naked. Sure, she disobeyed that order. But that doesn't mean that the officers are either entitled to use excessive force or that the force that they used wasn't excessive.

And all this, by the way, is what plaintiff is trying to express -- albeit inartfully -- when she gets Justice Moore excited. Here's what Justice Moore says in the penultimate paragraph of the opinion: "Truong's analogy of her case to Rosa Parks and her assertion that [the court's holding] gives 'carte blanche to beat to a bloody pulp, with financial impunity, any arrestee, provided they obtained a conviction for the conduct which preceded the beating, is pure hyperbole. . . . Asserting that Truong was somehow analogous to Rosa Parks is both factually inaccurate and diminishes the legacy of those who risked themselves to fight for civil rights in this country. It does not impress this court."

Okay. Maybe a bad tactical choice by plaintiff to invoke a beloved civil rights figure. Truong wasn't Rosa Parks when she refused to get naked.

But, that said, when one puts aside her poorly-chosen rhetoric, plaintiff's point is entirely right. Justice Moore agrees with the defendants and holds that if plaintiff is convicted of disobeying an officer, any beating that comes "mere moments" -- rather than "hours, or even minutes" after the order is disobeyed -- is, as a matter of law, not excessive force. That's neither the correct rule nor one that's supported by precedent. Nor is it one that -- and Justice Moore shouldn't be blind to the reality here -- advances the cause of civil rights. Finally, it is also a ruling would indeed be applicable to immunize some of the egregious conduct performed against civil rights advocates in the South during the 1950s and 60s.

Regardless, for purposes of excessive force, the law doesn't distinguish between individuals based upon the merits of their cause. You can't beat the crap out of anyone merely because they disobeyed a lawful order. And the fact that they admittedly initially refused to disrobe doesn't mean that you are -- as a matter of law -- justified in breaking their arm. Particularly when, as here, plaintiff alleges that she was no longer refusing to comply with this order when they started wailing on her and breaking her bones.

Everyone has something to learn here. The lesson for plaintiffs: Tone down the rhetoric. Sometimes it hurts you. The lesson for judges: Don't let language that doesn't seem right to you blind you to the validity of the message. Which is what happens to Justice Moore here. And because she's misled, she issues a holding that really does set back the substantive cause of civil rights and the constitutional right to be from the use of unnecessary and excessive force by the government.