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False Arrest Case Returns to 9th Over Statutory Interpret... Zzz

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By William Peacock, Esq. on April 10, 2013 3:58 PM

Thirteen years ago, Erris Edgerly was standing alone in a playground located in a housing project in San Francisco. It turns out, intentionally or not, that he may have been trespassing. He was not a resident of the housing project and was standing in a fenced-in area with "No Trespassing" signs displayed frequently and prominently.

What happens when one commits the offense of trespassing? For a first-timer, it is a mere infraction - which should mean "ticket and release." Instead, he was taken to the police station, searched, and when no contraband was found, he was finally released with a ticket.

Then, he sued.

At the end of the first trial, the district court granted judgment as a matter of law to the defendants on the false arrest claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that while the officers did have the right to arrest Edgerly, they didn't have the right to take him into custody, as this was a mere infraction.

That's pretty clear, right? The lower court couldn't screw that up ... right?

Never underestimate the power of lawyers to make a simple concept convoluted.

California Penal Code § 853.5(a) states that a custodial arrest is only appropriate when an arrestee lacks identification, refuses to sign a promise to appear, or refuses to provide a thumbprint or fingerprint. If a person is arrested, he should be released according to the procedures set forth for the release of a person arrested for a misdemeanor.

The defendants argued that the emphasized text incorporates the ten grounds for misdemeanor arrest in § 853.6(i). The trial court agreed and Edgerly again lost his lawsuit.

It doesn't really say that though, does it? It says "procedures for release", which is a different section than reasons for arrest.

The Ninth Circuit again checked the lower court's reading comprehension skills and reversed their holding on the false arrest claim for the following reasons:

  • Both Rottanak and Williams support Edgerly's preferred reading (the sentence only incorporates release procedures). These two cases are from higher courts than the case cited by the district court judge here, People v. Arnold;
  • "Grounds for nonrelease" are not the same thing as "procedures for release";
  • "Incorporating § 853.6(i) into § 853.5(a) would conflict with § 853.5(a) itself, which specifies in its fifth and final sentence only three grounds for nonrelease for a person arrested for an infraction";
  • Prominent secondary authorities, such as Witkin's California Criminal Law § 57, agree with Edgerly's interpretation; and
  • Common sense.

The Ninth Circuit remanded the case, stating, "[I]f there are no further issues pertaining to liability on this claim, the district court should enter judgment in favor of Edgerly and proceed to a trial on damages."

Thirteen years later, reading comprehension and Edgerly will finally prevail.

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