Friday, January 20, 2006

Christie v. City of El Centro (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 13, 2006)

What the heck is going on out there in El Centro?!

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and a busy day in the parking lot at the Costco in El Centro. So Stephanie Hernandez decides -- somewhat rudely, in my view -- that she's just going to sit in her car in the middle of traffic in the closest row of the Costco parking lot until someone pulls out. She waits for a full 20 minutes (blocking traffic the whole time) until she finally gets a spot. Meantime, to pass her, cars have to swerve around her vehicle to get by, and several do. Including Ben Christie. Unfortunately, Ben accidentally hits Stephanie's bumper while doing so. Mind you, there's not even a scratch on the bumper; indeed, when the police later inspect Stephanie's bumper, all they can find is a place where dust has been disturbed.

But Stephanie will have none of it. She's the wife of an El Centro police officer. So she immediately gets on her cell phone and calls the El Centro Police Department, uses a secret code to indicate that she's the spouse of an officer, and has the police come out. Meanwhile, Ben has finally found a parking space and gone into Costco. Stephanie tells her police officer buddies that Ben had "rammed" her car three times "with increasing force" -- so much so that the car rocked back and forth -- and that she feared for her life and the lives of her children in the car. Remember, there's not even a scratch. But the cops go into Costco and grab Ben, telling him that he's busted. And they subsequently charge him with -- get this -- felony assault with a deadly weapon, as well as assault and reckless driving. Dude. And they promptly strip search the guy and throw him into prison for six days -- again, during the Thanksgiving holiday -- before he finally is arraigned (and released) on Monday.

At trial, they offer Ben a plea to midemeanor disturbing the peace. But Ben tells 'em to stuff it. At the close of the trial, the jury deliberates for a whole hour before acquitting Ben of all charges.

So Ben -- hacked off, no doubt -- promptly sues for false arrest, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and a variety of other torts. The first judge assigned to the suit is Judge Jones, whom Ben promptly strikes. The action is promptly reassigned to Judge Foerster, who conducts a trial in March 2004 and eventually grants a nonsuit in favor of the City of El Centro. Ben moves for a new trial, and at the hearing on this motion (which is before Judge Foerster), Ben's attorney says that he's pretty sure that Judge Foerster talked about the decision to nonsuit the case with the previously disqualified judge, Judge Jones. Suspiciously, Judge Foerster doesn't immediately respond to this allegation, but thereafter, issues a well-crafted disclosure that says, oh, yeah, I did talk to Judge Jones about this case, but only about various "laws and procedures". Indeed, eventually, Judge Foerster owns up to a second conversation with Judge Jones as well, this time in connection with the new trial motion.

Ben's not psyched about this, and moves for a new trial and to disqualify Judge Foerster. Judge Warner, from San Bernadino, is assigned the disqualification motion, and finds that Judge Foerster acted improperly, noting that "[t]he appearance of impropriety is patent. A judge simply should not speak with another judge about a case in which the latter has been disqualified." Duh.

So the case then gets assigned to Judge Donnelly for a hearing on Ben's motion for a new trial, who concludes that Ben is indeed entitled to a new trial because the motion for nonsuit was granted by Judge Foerster, who was disqualified due to his prior ex parte contacts with the previously-disqualified Judge Jones. The City of El Centro then appeals. But Justice Nares -- properly -- disagrees with the City. Affirmed.

Crazy stuff going down in El Centro. You guys out there have got to get your act together. This was not the finest hour for justice in your fine City. In the future, please do not strip search a dude and throw him in jail for six days during the Turkey Holidays simply for touching the bumper of a cop's wife in the Costco parking lot. And do not have your judges talk to other disqualified judges. You just don't do that stuff. It ain't right.