Botched Stolen-Car Stop May Cost San Francisco
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The San Francisco Police Department must face claims that a faulty license plate scan led to a terrifying stolen-vehicle traffic stop, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.
Denise Green sued San Francisco, its police department and three officers after an automated license-plate reader, or ALPR, misread Green's license plate and identified it as stolen. Instead of visually verifying that the camera had read the plate correctly, officers instead conducted a high-risk felony traffic stop on the night of March 30, 2009, and pulled the 47-year-old Green out of her vehicle at gunpoint.
After patting down Green and searching her vehicle, one of the officers ran a check of Green's entire plate number and discovered her Acura had never been reported stolen at all. In all, Green said she spent at least 10 minutes in handcuffs and that the entire stop lasted 18 to 20 minutes.
Green said in her civil-rights complaint that the officers' actions amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure and a de facto arrest without probable cause - an arrest that also involved an unreasonable amount of force given that Green has no criminal record and that the vehicle was hers.
U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg nevertheless dismissed Green's suit after finding that officers made a "good faith, reasonable mistake" in thinking Green's car was stolen. Seeborg also found the officers' tactics reasonable and rejected Green's excessive-force claims.
A three-judge panel for the 9th Circuit reversed Monday, however, after finding that Seeborg's plausible rationale improperly favored the defendants.
"Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Green, as we must, the absence of any express indication from Officer Esparza that he had verified the plate necessarily precludes summary judgment for defendants," U.S. District Judge William Sessions III, wrote for the court, sitting by designation from Vermont. "At the time of this incident, there was no SFPD policy placing the ultimate or sole responsibility of verifying the accuracy of the APLR reading on the camera car operator. Absent such a policy, it is disputable whether an officer conducting a stop could reasonably rely on a lack of qualifying information from the camera car operator as a justification for making the stop without making an independent verification. It thus remains a triable issue whether it was reasonable for Sergeant Kim to conclude that Officer Esparza had confirmed the plate in the absence of any affirmative indication that he had done so."
The panel also stressed that the sergeant making the stop should have done his own confirmation of Green's license plate since the first officer never said he had done his own visual check.
"As a result, it cannot be established as a matter of law whether or not reasonable suspicion existed to justify the investigatory detention, and defendants' motion for summary judgment on this ground was improperly granted," Sessions wrote. "This conclusion is further supported by our precedent that the reasonableness of officer conduct should be decided by a jury where the inquiry turns on disputed issues of material fact."
Green's detention may also have amounted to a de facto arrest without probable cause, particularly given her immediate cooperation and the utter lack of any threat by a 47-year-old who "was barely able to rise from her knees without assistance," according to the ruling.
"The tactics used were extremely intrusive, yet none of the Washington v. Lambert factors justifying such tactics were present," Sessions wrote. "It is uncontested that Green was compliant with law enforcement at all times. The police had no specific information that Green was armed. The stop did not closely follow a violent crime. And the police did not have information that a violent crime was about to occur. All of these factors count against a finding that the officers' conduct was a reasonable response to safety concerns."
While the city and its police officers argued that the possible existence of a stolen vehicle satisfied the degree of force used to take Green down, the panel disagreed.
"The fact that Green was stopped on suspicion of a stolen vehicle does not by itself demonstrate that she presented a danger to the officers," Sessions wrote. "Furthermore, numerous factors - that law enforcement lacked any specific information that she was armed, that Green was compliant with instructions at all times, that there was no evidence of recent violence, and that the police significantly outnumbered Green so as to diminish the risk she posed - count against such a finding."
The appellate panel did, however, acknowledge that the Seeborg made the right decision in denying Green summary judgment.
"On the record before us factual determinations remain that must be left to a jury," Sessions concluded.