Thursday, February 16, 2023

Duarte v. City of Stockton (9th Cir. - Feb. 16, 2023)

You can see why the district court might have gotten this one wrong. In part, anyway.

There's a rule is that you can't file a civil suit against the police for your arrest if you were convicted. Plaintiff pleads nolo contendre ("no contest"), which is essentially the equivalent of a guilty plea. But California allows the trial court to hold pleas in abeyance, which is what the trial court did, and after six months, when the plaintiff had completed the required community service and not violated any laws, the charges were dismissed in the interests of justice.

Does that count as essentially a conviction and hence bar the civil suit?

A couple of circuits have said "Yes." Because basically the required community service and six months of not doing anything wrong was the guy's "sentence". But even more circuits have said "No." It doesn't count as a finding of guilt and sentence because it was was, in fact, not a finding of guilt or sentence. It was a dismissal.

The district court agreed with the couple of "Yes" circuits. The Ninth Circuit agreed with the four circuits that said "No," so reversed.

Fair enough. Split opinions in the Court of Appeals, so the trial court picking what turns out to be the wrong side of this debate is hardly a major slam.

The weird part, however, is the second basis for the Ninth Circuit's reversal.

The district court also dismissed the lawsuit against the City of Stockton on the ground that the city wasn't a "person" subject to Section 1983 liability. But there's an on-point Ninth Circuit decision -- lots of 'em, in fact -- that holds exactly to the contrary. The trial court finds persuasive a concurrence by a single Ninth Circuit judge that says that the rule should be otherwise. But as the panel here notes quite persuasively, a single judge can't overrule Ninth Circuit precedent -- and certainly can't do so merely in a concurrence. 

So how the district court got that one wrong is much less easy to explain.