Police in California are not immune from civil lawsuits for misconduct that happens while they investigate crimes, the state Supreme Court ruled this week, overruling a precedent made by lower courts that had helped protect law enforcement from litigation for decades.
The justices on Thursday unanimously rejected an argument by Riverside County that its sheriff’s deputies couldn’t be sued for leaving a man’s naked body lying in plain sight for eight hours while officers investigated his killing.
California law protects police from being sued for any harm that happens during a prosecution process — even if the officer acted “maliciously and without probable cause.” Now, the Supreme Court says police can be sued for misconduct during investigations.
The ruling cites previous case law that defined investigatory actions as those before charges are filed.
“The potential for factual overlap between investigations and prosecutions does not justify treating them as one and the same,” Justice Leondra Kruger wrote in the ruling.
Kruger noted the court issued a similar ruling in 1974. But in 1994, a state appeals court adopted a broader interpretation to shield police from lawsuits stemming from conduct during investigations. Lower courts have been relying on that ruling to dismiss misconduct lawsuits against law enforcement that did not involve prosecutions.
A lawyer representing Riverside County in the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
This particular case centered on Jose Leon, who was shot and killed by a neighbor in 2017 southeast of Los Angeles in Riverside County. Shortly after sheriff’s deputies arrived at the shooting, they heard several gunshots nearby and dragged Leon’s body behind a police vehicle, causing his pants to fall down and exposing his genitals, according to the lawsuit. His wife Dora Leon sued the county for negligence and emotional distress, saying police had left her husband’s naked body in plain view for hours. The case was dismissed by lower courts that ruled state law provides immunity to law enforcement officers and agencies for police conduct during investigations.
The Supreme Court reinstated Dora Leon’s lawsuit. Kruger wrote that the lower courts’ decision was wrong, saying police investigations cannot be interpreted as part of the prosecution process.
Many local police departments have routinely argued that they are immune from damage claims “the moment a police officer arrives on the scene of a crime,” said Richard Antognini, a lawyer representing Leon.
If the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the county, “it would have essentially immunized them for almost anything,” he said.
The recent ruling helps remove an obstacle for victims seeking damages from police misconduct, Antognini said. California laws still provide immunity to certain aspects of police investigations.
The ruling was praised by John Burris, a California civil rights attorney who has represented more than 1,000 victims of police misconduct across the country.
“This should have a positive impact on police reform, because now the law has spoken,” Burris said. “Police should be trained and be better informed as to what their obligations are.”
Associated Press writer Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to the report.