Constitutional Law

Deputy who complied with public defender's 'arrest me' taunt may be liable, says 9th Circuit

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A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who was unable to persuade a public defender to immediately accompany him to a courtroom may be liable for complying with her “arrest me” taunt, according to a federal appeals court.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal judge’s finding that the deputy had qualified immunity in the arrest of public defender Florentina Demuth, though the appeals court didn’t appear happy about it. The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal Law Blog have stories.

“What seems to be at stake here is little more than wounded pride, as any damages suffered by the plaintiff seem hardly more than nominal,” Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the court (PDF). “The dispute should have been resolved by an admission that the deputy violated Demuth’s constitutional rights, followed by mutual apologies and a handshake, saving the taxpayers of Los Angeles County the considerable costs of litigating this tiff.”

Demuth’s lawyer, Daniel Crawford, said the county will now be required to pay Demuth’s legal costs as well as its own, and the total amount for both sides could reach $1 million. Demuth had sought $40,000. The opinion allows Demuth to pursue allegations that the deputy violated her Fourth Amendment rights.

The sheriff’s deputy, Wai Chiu Li, had been dispatched by a referee in the Los Angeles courthouse to find Demuth after she didn’t answer a page or her telephone, the court said. Demuth had spoken with the referee and opposing counsel that morning, telling the opposing counsel she would return in the afternoon. The referee decided to summons Demuth before that time. The referee told Li that if he could not find Demuth, he should bring her supervisor to court to explain Demuth’s absence. Li found Demuth in her office with her supervisor.

When Li told Demuth she was wanted in court, Demuth indicated she wasn’t ready and said Li would have to arrest her if he needed her this instant.

“While challenging someone equipped with a badge, handcuffs and a gun to ‘arrest me’ was unwise on Demuth’s part,” Kozinski wrote, “we fail to see what legal difference her statement makes.” She could not have authorized her own arrest, Kozinski said.

Demuth’s arrest lasted for about 11 minutes—the time it took to bring Demuth to the courtroom.

“No one in this case has covered himself with glory;” Kozinski wrote, “not the lawyer whose lackadaisical response to a judicial summons and disrespectful retort to a fellow court officer set off this unfortunate chain of events; not the supervisor who did not urge the lawyer to comply promptly with the deputy’s repeated requests that she come to court or admonish her for her tart response to the deputy; not the deputy who took the bait and abused his power; not the judges of the Los Padrinos Juvenile Court, who, doubtless aware of the incident, failed to mediate a minor dispute among court officers and allowed it to metastasize into a federal case.”

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