Park Law Enforcement Civil Rights Claims

August 20, 2020, Department, by James C. Kozlowski, J.D., Ph.D.

2020 September Law Review Park Law Enforcement Civil Rights 410

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In the case of Risse v. Porter, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51141 (E.D. Cal. 3/23/2020), Plaintiff Lisa Risse (“Plaintiff”) asserted a number of federal civil rights claims against Defendants Officer Michael Porter (“Officer Porter”), Rio Linda Elverta Recreation & Park District, and Fulton­‑El Camino Recreation & Park District (collectively, “Defendants”). Officer Porter was employed as a law enforcement officer for the Fulton-El Camino Recreation & Park District, and also believed to be a law enforcement officer for the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation & Park District. As described below, these claims were prompted by Plaintiff’s encounter with Officer Porter after a Little League game.

Grossly Inappropriate Behavior
In her complaint, Plaintiff alleges the following facts. At approximately 10 p.m. on April 13, 2018, Plaintiff made her way to her vehicle after watching her son’s Little League game at Westside Park in Sacramento, California. As she approached her vehicle, Plaintiff began to greet Officer Porter, who was behind his vehicle. Officer Porter directed his squad car’s spotlight at Plaintiff’s face and shouted demands to see her identification. Because the light was bright and obstructed her vision, making it difficult to produce the requested identification, Plaintiff opened and placed her purse on the back of her vehicle. She then stepped away from the vehicle with her hands up and to the side.

Plaintiff claims she identified herself as a probation officer, informed Officer Porter that she carried a firearm in her purse, and told him that her permit to carry along with her identification were in her purse. She also says she told Officer Porter where in her purse the firearm was located. Plaintiff asserts that upon this information, Officer Porter assumed a shooter’s stance, raised his pistol, and shouted, “Gun! You have a gun!” This interaction caused Plaintiff’s 8-year-old daughter to begin screaming and crying.

During this time, Plaintiff claims Officer Porter shouted “confusing and conflicting instructions, requesting Plaintiff to back away from her purse, keep her hands up, hand him her purse, and hand him her firearm.” Plaintiff asserts she was fearful Officer Porter would shoot and kill her if she approached the purse, and that she attempted to explain to Officer Porter that the firearm was located in a secure zipper in her purse. Plaintiff alleges she was “certain that Michael Porter was about to shoot and kill Plaintiff in front of Plaintiff’s daughter based on his behavior” and that she was “in mortal fear of her life.”

Plaintiff asserts that when Officer Porter “aggressively rushed and handcuffed” Plaintiff, her daughter began “fearfully begging” for Officer Porter to “not kill her mom,” to which Officer Porter responded, “Shut the f*** up!” Plaintiff asserts that upon arriving at the scene, Plaintiff’s 13-year-old son approached the vehicle and told Officer Porter, “get off my mom,” at which point Officer Porter aimed his firearm at Plaintiff’s son. Plaintiff’s husband, son and daughter “begged Michael Porter to not harm or kill Plaintiff.” Plaintiff’s complaint further asserts that Officer Porter continued to shout expletives at Plaintiff’s children and “other surrounding community members while positioning himself in a threatening manner, holding his service weapon as if he were ready to aim and fire it.”

According to allegations in Plaintiff’s complaint, Officer Porter then reported a “‘woman with a gun and aggressive male threatening people at the Little League game’ into his radio and requested another officer.” A California Highway Patrol (“CHP”) Officer and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy responded to the call. Later, those officers allegedly stated that Officer Porter’s call was misleading and Officer Porter’s behavior was “grossly inappropriate.”

Plaintiff additionally alleges Officer Porter put Plaintiff into the backseat of a locked police vehicle with the windows rolled up, detaining her there for more than an hour without proper ventilation. Plaintiff alleges she was unable to remove her winter clothing, became overheated, nauseated and nearly lost consciousness. Officer Porter allegedly refused Plaintiff’s requests for water, dismissed her complaints that exhaust from the floorboard was suffocating her, and kept her locked in the vehicle. Within 20 to 30 minutes of being locked in the car, Plaintiff vomited on herself.

According to the complaint, a responding Sergeant was present during her requests for water and ventilation. Additionally, the CHP Officer and Sheriff’s Deputy present at the scene directed Officer Porter and the Sergeant to release Plaintiff, but they refused. Officer Porter released Plaintiff after more than an hour with a citation for resisting arrest. Plaintiff has not been charged with any crime arising from the incident.

The following week, Officer Porter allegedly contacted the Rio Linda Little League office and recommended Plaintiff be banned because her family was “dangerous.” Officer Porter also contacted Plaintiff’s place of employment, telling her coworkers she was aggressive and had resisted arrest. The Plaintiff’s complaint alleges Officer Porter contacted Plaintiff’s place of employment several times and continued to make “unlawful, unfounded, and derogatory remarks about Plaintiff’s character to her coworkers.”

Plaintiff asserts Officer Porter continues to harass her and her husband in public while in the presence of family and friends. According to Plaintiff, this harassment includes spreading rumors about Plaintiff being “dangerous” and “a liar”; stalking Plaintiff; and repeatedly defaming Plaintiff “in communications with her place of employment and with members of the Rio Linda community.”

As a result, Plaintiff alleges she suffers from anxiety and severe emotional distress. Further, Plaintiff claims she is being treated for the severe psychological and emotional injuries resulting from the alleged acts and omissions of Officer Porter and Defendants.

Due to public humiliation and continued defamation by Officer Porter, Plaintiff claims she had to take an extended leave of absence from her work, and her professional and personal relationships have suffered. Plaintiff alleges she continues to experience a “loss of quality of life and a loss of quality of relationship, companionship and society.” Moreover, Plaintiff claims her familial relationships have been harmed and she has suffered mental health ramifications from both the initial incident and Officer Porter’s continued stalking and harassment.

Plausible Liability Claim
In response to Plaintiff’s complaint, the Defendants denied any liability and filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims.

Under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, “Rule 12(b)(6),” tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Further, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that a pleading contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” In addition, the complaint must give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.

On a motion to dismiss, the factual allegations of the complaint must be accepted as true by the court. Moreover, a court is bound to give a plaintiff the benefit of every reasonable inference to be drawn from the “well-pleaded” allegations of the complaint. A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Ultimately, a court may not dismiss a complaint in which the plaintiff has alleged enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.

Municipal Policy or Custom Liability
In her complaint, Plaintiff had asserted a number of federal civil rights claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Section 1983). In its 1978 “Monell” decision, the Supreme Court of the United States held a plaintiff bringing a Section 1983 claim against a municipality must “allege an officer violated her constitutional rights by executing a local government policy or custom.” Monell v. Dep’t of Soc. Servs. of City of N.Y.C., 436 U.S. 658, 690-91, 98 S. Ct. 2018, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978). In this particular instance, Defendants argued Plaintiff had alleged “only a single incident of unconstitutional conduct,” as opposed to the requisite execution of a “local government policy or custom” to establish a federal civil rights claim under Monell.

In response, Plaintiff claimed her complaint had asserted “various theories of liability” based upon policy or custom. In particular, Plaintiff claimed “Defendants made a conscious choice not to properly train Officer Porter and that they condoned his continued harassment of Plaintiff in violation of her constitutional rights.” Plaintiff further alleged, “these customs or practices were the cause of the harm inflicted on her.” Defendants, however, claimed “none of these subsequent actions involved unconstitutional conduct.”

As noted by the federal district court: “A municipality may be liable under Monell for adopting a policy or custom that inflicts injury; failing to train employees properly to the extent of deliberate indifference to a constitutional right; or ratifying a subordinate’s unconstitutional behavior.”

In this particular instance, the court found Plaintiff had indeed alleged sufficient facts to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss her Monell claims against Defendants Fulton-El Camino Recreation and Park District and the Rio Linda Elverta Recreation and Park District. According to the court, to sufficiently state a claim based upon “inadequate training, supervision, or discipline,” Plaintiff would have to allege the following:

 (1) the training program was inadequate in relation to the tasks the particular officer must perform; (2) the municipal officials must have been deliberately indifferent to the rights of persons with whom the local officials come into contact; and (3) the inadequacy of the training was shown to have actually caused the constitutional deprivation.

 In particular, the court emphasized the fact that, “a municipality’s failure to train its employees in a relevant respect must amount to deliberate indifference to the rights of persons with whom the untrained employees come into contact.”

Viewing Plaintiff’s complaint in a favorable light in response to Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, in this particular instance, the federal district court found Plaintiff had sufficiently alleged “a failure to train that rises to the level of deliberate indifference by the municipality.” In so doing, the court found allegations that “a CHP Officer and a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy stated the call Officer Porter made was misleading and his behavior was grossly inappropriate.” In so doing, the court found statements by these “two officers from different law enforcement branches” indicated “Officer Porter was not behaving within the bounds of standard procedure,” which made it “plausible Officer Porter was not properly trained”: 

Because this seems to be an otherwise ordinary encounter with a citizen, such inadequate training would amount to deliberate indifference to the rights of the ordinary citizens officers contact on a daily basis. Further, a Sergeant from Officer Porter’s department was present for at least part of the incident and, as alleged, did nothing to stop Officer Porter’s conduct, nor did he release Plaintiff from the patrol car.... [T]he Sergeant consulted Plaintiff as to where her firearm was located and was present during her complaints about the exhaust and heat, requests for water, and subsequent vomiting due to those conditions.

In the opinion of the court, these alleged facts indicated, “Officer Porter and the Sergeant may have believed they were within their rights to continue to detain Plaintiff.” According to the court, these facts, however, made “plausible the position that the municipalities offered a training program so inadequate that it amounts to deliberate indifference.” Further, the court found “ratification by supervisors of a subordinate’s conduct can serve as a ‘policy’ for purposes of municipal liability”:

The mere failure to investigate the basis of a subordinate’s discretionary decisions is not considered a ratification. But even a policy of inaction may be considered a policy for purposes of Monell liability.

In this particular instance, Plaintiff had alleged, “Defendants customarily allowed officers to behave as Officer Porter is alleged to have behaved because they knew of and condoned the behavior through inaction.” Specifically, the federal court found the presence of a Sergeant “who failed to discipline officer Porter or at minimum correct the ongoing situation” could indicate “a ratification of Officer Porter’s conduct.” Further, Plaintiff had alleged the Defendants had not taken any disciplinary action against Officer Porter for his continued misconduct and harassment.

In the opinion of the court, Plaintiff’s allegations “at least suggests the municipality has ratified this behavior, allowing for the inference that a custom or policy exists that permits such conduct.” As a result, the federal district court found Plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts to establish a plausible federal civil rights claim against Defendants. The federal district court, therefore, denied the Motion to Dismiss by the municipal defendants.

Excessive Force and False Arrest
Plaintiff also alleged violations of her right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment in that she was subject to “excessive force and false arrest” as a result of her being “detained for over an hour in the backseat of a police vehicle with the windows rolled up and doors locked without proper ventilation.” Further, while handcuffed in the hot car, Plaintiff claimed her requests for water and ventilation were ignored, causing her humiliation when she vomited on herself due to the heat and exhaust fumes from the vehicle. In the opinion of the federal district court: “All of these alleged facts are sufficient to state a cognizable claim under the Fourteenth Amendment.” Accordingly, the court also denied Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s alleged violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.

First Amendment Claim
In response to Plaintiff’s allegation that her First Amendment rights had been violated, Defendants argued Plaintiff had not provided any “evidence showing that by his actions [Officer Porter] deterred or chilled the Plaintiff’s political speech and such deterrence was a substantial or motivating factor in [Officer Porter’s] conduct.” Plaintiff, however, maintained, “her First Amendment claim focuses on the deprivation of her right to familial association, companionship, and society.” Defendants, however, contended, “Plaintiff’s brief detention does not rise to the level of a First Amendment deprivation of familial association.”

 As noted by the federal district court, the First Amendment does protect “distinctively personal aspects of one’s life.” Specifically, the First Amendment would protect “family relationships” that presuppose “deep attachment and commitments to the necessarily few other individuals with whom one shares not only a special community of thoughts, experiences, and beliefs.”

In this particular instance, the federal district court found Plaintiff had alleged Officer Porter continued to harass her “subsequent to the initial incident” of what Defendants described as a “brief detention.” Plaintiff alleged such harassment included the following:

 …telling the Little League to ban her because she and her family are “dangerous”; calling Plaintiff’s place of employment and defaming Plaintiff to her coworkers; spreading rumors in the community that Plaintiff is “dangerous” and “a liar”; and continuing to stalk and harass Plaintiff in public while in the presence of her family and friends.

Accordingly, “as a result of Defendants’ actions, inactions, or deliberate indifference to her rights,” Plaintiff alleged, “her working associations have been restricted and affected, causing loss of quality of life, relationship, companionship, and society.”

The federal district court agreed with Defendants that “Plaintiff’s brief detention likely does not amount to a violation of the First Amendment.” On the other hand, the court found: “The alleged subsequent intimidation and harassment by Officer Porter, however, condoned by the municipal Defendants, could plausibly be construed as an unconstitutional restraint of free association because it has had the effect of alienating Plaintiff from her family, friends, and coworkers.” As noted by the court, Defendants had attempted to minimize this extensive harassment by characterizing it as “loosely related post-incident harassment and gossip.”

In the opinion of the federal district court, the municipal Defendants’ inaction or indifference to allegations of Officer Porter’s continued harassment of Plaintiff and false claims related to the incident amounted to more than “loosely related post-incident harassment and gossip.” Accordingly, the court found Plaintiff had “alleged sufficient facts to support a violation of her First Amendment Rights.” The court, therefore, denied Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s First Amendment claim.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
In addition, the federal district court found Plaintiff had alleged sufficient facts in her complaint to support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress and to overcome Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss. The court cited the following legal definition of intentional infliction of emotional distress: 

To qualify as severe emotional distress, the distress must be so severe that no reasonable person in a civilized society should be expected to endure it. Emotional distress qualifies as severe and traumatic when manifesting as shock, horror, nausea, or another physical affect.

As noted by the court, Plaintiff’s complaint had alleged she suffered from “anxiety and severe emotional distress due to Officer Porter’s behavior,” which included the following misconduct:

Officer Porter pointed his service weapon at Plaintiff and her 13-year-old son and told Plaintiff’s 8-year-old daughter to “shut the f*** up!” Plaintiff alleges she was in fear for her life and her family’s safety as Officer Porter threatened to harm them. Plaintiff alleges she was handcuffed with her winter clothing on, detained for over an hour in a hot police vehicle, without proper ventilation, and in front of members of her community, and that she became physically ill, all while her pleas for water and ventilation were ignored.

Further, the court noted Plaintiff alleged she is “being treated for severe psychological and emotional injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from Officer Porter’s behavior.” In determining whether or not to grant Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, as described above, the federal district court would accept “Plaintiff’s allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in her favor.” Accordingly, the court found Plaintiff’s complaint had sufficiently alleged distress “so severe that no reasonable person in a civilized society should be expected to endure it.” The federal district court, therefore, denied Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

Having found the allegations in Plaintiff’s complaint had sufficiently stated a legal basis for liability, the federal district court rejected Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss Plaintiff’s lawsuit. The federal district court, therefore, would allow Plaintiff’s lawsuit to go forward for further trial proceedings. In so doing, Plaintiff would be provided an opportunity to prove the allegations in her complaint, and Defendants could respond with evidence and testimony to deny any civil rights violations or liability in this particular instance.

Postscript: On April 27, 2020, Defendants Fulton-El Camino Recreation & Park District, Michael Porter, and Rio Linda Elverta Recreation & Park District filed a demand for a jury trial with the federal district court. Should this case proceed to trial, in making this demand, the Defendants chose to exercise their constitutional right to have this case decided by a jury, as opposed to the federal judge. In making this choice, counsel for Defendants may have decided that local citizens on a jury might be more inclined to favor the position of law enforcement in their community park districts and deny Plaintiff’s liability claims. 

James C. Kozlowski, J.D., Ph.D., is an Attorney and Associate Professor in the School of Sport, Recreation, and Tourism Management at George Mason University. Webpage with link to law review articles archive (1982 to present).