Government Entities – Case Law Update, January 2018

These summaries are written by Heather White and are for informational purposes only.  Neither Snow Christensen & Martineau, nor Heather White, represented any of the parties involved.

Farrell v. Montoya

Officer Tony DeTavis pulled Farrell over for speeding.  A few minutes after initiating the stop, DeTavis approached the minivan parked on the right shoulder of the highway and explained to Farrell that he was going to give her a citation.  He gave her two options:  pay the penalty of $126 within 30 days or see a Taos magistrate within 30 days.  After an argument with the officer, Farrell refused to make a decision because she did not know where she would be in 30 days.  As the officer went back to his car to call for help, Farrell drove off.  DeTavis was able to Farrell over again.  However, Farrell got in a scuffle with the officer who tried to arrest her.  When the officer tried to pull Farrell out of the car, Farrell’s 14-year old son tried to fight off the officer, who then pulled out his taser.  The officer then bashed out the windows on Farrell’s van after her family ran back into the van and locked the doors.  The van began to drive away again. As the incident unfolded, Officer Montoya showed up and fired three shots at the van as Farrell sped off.  Three officers returned to their vehicles and pursued the Farrells down Highway 518, reaching speeds of 100 mph during the chase.  When Farrell approached a more congested area, she weaved through traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road on several occasions, while one of her younger children was calling 911.  More than four minutes after the chase began, the Farrells drove into a hotel parking lot and surrendered.  No bullet hit the minivan or the Farrells inside.

Farrell claimed that Officer Montoya violated their Fourth Amendment rights when he fired three shots at their minivan as it drove away from officers trying to effect a traffic stop.  The Tenth Circuit held the district court should have granted Officer Montoya summary judgment because the shots did not halt the Farrells’ departure and, because they were fleeing, they were not seized at the time Montoya fired his weapon, even if they had a subjective intent to submit to authority.

Starrett v. City of Lander

Two police officers responded to a domestic disturbance call at the trailer home of the Starretts, who went outside to talk with them. One officer stayed on the front porch with Mrs. Starrett, who appeared intoxicated and uncooperative, and another walked a short distance away with Mr. Starrett.  Mr. Starrett agreed to leave and “cool down” but stated he would need to get his shoes from inside the trailer.  The officer with him followed Mr. Starrett to the trailer with his permission.  Mrs. Starrett, however, stepped into the doorway and pulled the front door closed, telling the officer he could not enter because he did not have a warrant.  According to Mrs. Starrett, the officer threw her to the ground, breaking her arm.

Plaintiffs filed a civil rights action claiming the officers unlawfully arrested Mrs. Starrett for interfering with an officer and used excessive force in restraining Mrs. Starrett.  The Tenth Circuit concluded the officers had arguable probable cause to arrest Mrs. Starrett for interference because her action in pulling the door closed was active resistance, and the law did not clearly establish the Fourth Amendment permits a person to actively resist an unlawful, warrantless search, even if unlawful.  Therefore, they were entitled to qualified immunity.  The court also ruled the officers did not use excessive force in taking her to the ground because the officer could have reasonably believed that Mrs. Starrett’s act of closing the front door posed an immediate safety threat, given she appeared intoxicated and was uncooperative, he had no way of knowing if Mr. Starrett was also intoxicated or otherwise agitated, and the officer could have reasonably suspected there was a firearm present given his knowledge of the prior domestic disturbance call at the Starretts’ trailer.

State v. Adams

The Utah Court of appeals concluded the officer had an “objectively reasonable basis” to conclude a welfare check constituted an emergency, even though the officer did not see the defendant inside his home, much less in apparent distress.  The Court reasoned:

  1. The defendant’s mother informed law enforcement that he was suffering from “ongoing health issues;”
  2. The defendant’s mother had informed law enforcement that they generally spoke nearly every day, and she had not heard from the defendant in several days;
  3. The defendant’s neighbors told law enforcement they had not seen or heard from the defendant in two or three days; and
  4. The responding officer had conducted similar welfare checks in the past during which he had found individuals in their home either dead or incapacitated;
  5. The officer could see someone had recently been working on leaky pipes under the home’s crawl space from observing an extension cord powering a lamp strung through an open window into the crawl space, which was still moist;
  6. The officer observed tools that had been left on top of the roof near the air conditioning unit and a ladder left leaning up against the home near the tools.

“[T]his is evidence more consistent with Defendant taking ill or becoming injured while working on his home.”

State v. Homer

The Utah Court of Appeals reversed the magistrate judge’s denial to bind over a defendant for trial based on failure to produce “scientific evidence regarding the identity of the substance found in the baggie inside [the defendant’s] backpack.”  It concluded the evidence presented to the magistrate judge was sufficient to establish probable cause that the defendant committed the crime of possession or use of methamphetamine.  The Court reasoned circumstantial evidence of the substance was sufficient.  It explained “The officer testified [the defendant] was acting erratically and that he believed that [the defendant] was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  He observed [the defendant] acting furtively, attempting to hide items (that turned out to be syringes) under the floor mats of the truck.  A search of the truck revealed that [the defendant] was in possession of baggies and syringes, both of which the officer testified were of the type typically used to package and administer methamphetamine.  Finally, the officer gave his opinion that he believed the substance in question was in fact methamphetamine, and he explained that his opinion was based on his training and experience, the appearance of the substance, and the surrounding circumstances.”

State v. Jervis

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled an officer’s level two stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. It concluded the initial detention was supported by reasonable articulable suspicion that he had committed or was about to commit a crime because the officer observed the vehicle its front license plate was not attached and the defendant sitting alone in the driver’s seat of a vehicle with a missing front license plate and open bolt holes where the plate was supposed to be.  On a level two stop, “the [o]fficer need not have personally observed [the defendant] driving the vehicle with the missing license plate to reasonably arrive at the suspicion that [the defendant] had done so or would do so.”  It also concluded the officer did not exceed the scope of the level two stop by requesting identification and running a warrants check.  It explained, “Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has established that requesting identification and running a background check during an investigatory stop is independently permissible on the basis of officer safety.”

State v. Martinez

The Utah Supreme Court reversed the district court’s order granting Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained incident to his arrest.  The district court concluded that the law enforcement officer who stopped Defendant’s vehicle for an improper lane change violated Defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights when he asked to see Defendant’s identification and ran a warrants check without reasonable suspicion that Defendant had committed or was about to commit a crime.  The supreme court disagreed, holding (1) to promote officer safety, the Fourth Amendment does not prevent an officer from asking a passenger to produce identification and running a warrants check so long as that does not unreasonably prolong the duration of the stop; and (2) in this case, the officer’s seconds-long extension of the lawful traffic stop did not unreasonably prolong the detention.

State v. Rowan

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the district court granting Defendants’ motion to suppress the result of a search executed pursuant to a search warrant. The warrant was signed by a magistrate and executed by the police. Defendants moved under the state and federal constitutions to suppress the result of the search, challenging the magistrate’s probable cause determination. The district court found that there was no probable cause but that the federal good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied. When Defendants again moved to suppress, the court suppressed the evidence under the state constitution, concluding that there was no state good faith exception to the exclusionary rule. The Supreme Court reversed without reaching the questions of whether the court has recognized an exclusionary rule under the Utah Constitution or whether there should be a good faith exception to such a rule, holding that there was a substantial basis for the magistrate’s probable cause determination.

United States v. Bagley

This appeal involved a protective sweep of a house incident to the arrest of one of its occupants, defendant-appellant Stephen Bagley. The protective sweep yielded items that allowed law enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant for the entire house. Executing this warrant, officials found incriminating evidence. Bagley was a convicted felon who was named in an arrest warrant for violating the terms of his supervised release. Bagley moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the protective sweep had gone too far. The district court denied the motion. The Tenth Circuit, after review of the district court record, concluded the protective sweep under the circumstances of this case was not permissible under the Fourth Amendment.

United States v. Saulsberry

Defendant Walter Saulsberry appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress cards seized from his car, arguing he was unlawfully detained after an anonymous informant reported he was smoking marijuana in his car and that the search of his car was unlawfully expanded beyond a search for marijuana to include inspection of credit cards found in a bag within the car.  Although the Tenth Circuit found there was reasonable suspicion to detain Defendant, the court concluded the officers lacked probable cause to expand the search to examine the credit cards.  On the detention ruling, the court reasoned, “[A]lthough the caller did not provide his name, he sufficiently identified himself to establish his status as a citizen informant.”  It continued, “[T]he tip provided all the detail necessary to uniquely identify the suspect vehicle, the information was clearly contemporaneous and firsthand (Eastwood found the vehicle within two minutes of the dispatcher’s call), the information was corroborated, and the caller’s implicit motive was the public interest . . . .”  While “the caller did not provide further information, such as the suspect’s race, age, or clothing, or the length of time the suspect had been in the parking lot; but the caller’s description narrowed the suspects to one person.”  This information, taken as a whole, gave the officer “reasonable suspicion to detain Defendant to check out the tip.”

On the expansion of the search to credit cards, the court explained, “In our view, a police officer’s observation that a suspect possesses a number of cards (about 15) does not provide probable cause to believe that the suspect has been or is committing a crime. And we know of no authority to the contrary.”  Accordingly, the Court reversed the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Larsen v. Davis County School District

The court confirmed the requirement that “as long as the governmental entity can demonstrate that an immunity-invoking condition is ‘a proximate cause’ of the plaintiff’s injuries, it is immune from suit, regardless of whether there exist other non-immune causes of the plaintiff’s injuries.”  It also clarified that “the civil definition of “battery” incorporates principles of consent from the criminal law.”  Therefore, “consent is not an available defense if the plaintiff is a minor who cannot legally consent under the criminal law,” and it cannot be used to circumvent the immunities of assault and/or battery.

Marziale v. Spanish Fork City

A credit card error that caused Carole and James Marziale’s complaint against Spanish Fork City to be rejected did not affect the timeliness of the Marziales’ filing. The Marziales submitted a personal injury complaint with an undertaking in the Provo division of the Fourth Judicial District against the City. The status history showed that a clerk manually rejected the filing due to a credit card error. After the statute of limitation for their claim expired, the Marziales’ learned that their filings had been rejected. They refiled the complaint and undertaking in the Provo division, and it was accepted with proper payment. The City filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the court lacked jurisdiction over the action because the filing date was outside of the statute of limitations. The court granted the motion. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Marziales’ credit card payment error did not affect the validity of the filing of their complaint or undertaking under Utah R. Civ. P. 3, and therefore, the Marziales’ filings were timely filed.

Penunuri v. Sundance Partners

In August 2007, Lisa Penunuri was injured when she fell off her horse during a guided horseback trail ride at Sundance Resort. She and her husband sued for negligence and gross negligence against Rocky Mountain Outfitters, L.C. (the company that provided the trail guide services) as well as various defendants associated with the resort (collectively, Sundance). In 2013, the Utah Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of Ms. Penunuri’s ordinary negligence claims, leaving only her claims for gross negligence. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Sundance on the gross negligence claims and awarded Sundance its costs, including certain deposition costs. Penunuri appealed, and the appellate court affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari on three questions: (1) whether the court of appeals erred in concluding that summary judgment may be granted on a gross negligence claim even though the standard of care is not “fixed by
law;” (2) whether the court of appeals erred in affirming the district court’s conclusion that reasonable minds could only conclude there was no gross negligence under the circumstances of this case; and (3) whether the court of appeals erred in affirming the district court’s award of deposition costs to Sundance. Finding no reversible error on any of those claims, the Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals on each issue.

T.D. v. Patton

T.D. sued Kelcey Patton under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating his right to substantive due process based on the “danger-creation theory,” which provides “state officials can be liable for the acts of third parties where those officials created the danger that caused the harm.”  Currier v. Doran, 242 F.3d 905, 917 (10th Cir. 2001).  Patton was a social worker for the Denver Department of Human Services (“DDHS”) and one responsible for removing T.D., a minor at the time, from his mother’s home, placing him into DDHS’s custody, and recommending he be placed and remain in the temporary custody of his father, Tiercel Duerson.  DDHS later determined that during T.D.’s placement with Duerson, T.D. had suffered severe physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his father and also his half brother.

The district court concluded Patton violated T.D.’s substantive due process right by knowingly placing T.D. in a position of danger and knowingly increasing T.D.’s vulnerability to danger by recommending that T.D. be placed and remain in Duerson’s temporary custody despite her admitted concerns about T.D.’s safety in the home, her knowledge of Duerson’s criminal history that included a conviction for attempted sexual assault against a minor in his care, and notice of evidence that Duerson was potentially abusing T.D.  She failed to inform the juvenile court about her concerns and knowledge of Duerson’s criminal history and made her affirmative recommendations out of fear of being fired.  She also failed to investigate whether Duerson was abusing T.D. despite her awareness of evidence of potential abuse, which included reports that Mr. Duerson had hit him with a wooden mop handle and school officials’ reports that T.D. was spending significant time in the nurse’s office complaining of body aches and appearing fearful of his father.

The court determined that, based on this information, a reasonable official in Ms. Patton’s shoes would have understood she was violating T.D.’s constitutional rights and was, therefore, not entitled to qualified immunity.

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Heather S. White