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California Has Custodial Limits for Infractions

(CN) - Siding with a man who says his trespassing arrest got him strip-searched, the 9th Circuit explained Wednesday when police can take suspects downtown.

The case began in 2000, when San Francisco police officers John Conefrey and David Goff arrested Erris Edgerly at the Martin Luther King/Marcus Garvey Housing Cooperative.

Edgerly, who was not a resident of the housing project, told the cops that he was just "hanging out" in a fenced-in playground that bore several "No Trespassing" signs.

He says the officers searched him and then took him to the station for a strip-search, but the police deny that the strip-search ever occurred. Failing to find anything illegal on Edgerly, they cited him and let him go. He was not prosecuted for trespassing or for any other offense.

Edgerly later sued Goff, Conefrey and their supervisor, along with the city and county of San Francisco, alleging illegal search under the Fourth Amendment, state-level false arrest and various other claims.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco sided with the defendants on the false-arrest claim, finding that the officers had had probable cause.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed in 2010, citing the general prohibition in California against custodial arrests for minor infractions. Noting that the law provides only a few exceptions, the panel said probable cause here did not authorize the officers to placed Edgerly in custody.

The panel also found that a strip search, if proven, would have violated Edgerly's constitutional rights.

On remand, the defense came up with a new justification for the arrest, claiming it was legal under the state's misdemeanor code. Judge Breyer agreed, finding that the laws governing when a person can be arrested and placed in custody for a misdemeanor also applied in some cases to infractions. Allowed now to consider this new theory, a jury ruled for the defendants on the false arrest claim.

Edgerly took another trip to the 9th Circuit and found sympathy again Wednesday.

The San Francisco-based panel unanimously reversed the jury's ruling, finding no evidence or precedent to back up the defendants' claims.

It noted that Section 853.5(a) provides just three instances when custody is permitted for an infraction in California: if "the arrestee refuses to sign a written promise to appear; the arrestee is unable to produce satisfactory identification; or the arrestee refuses to provide a thumbprint or fingerprint."

Based on "the statute's plain language, the rule against superfluity and other persuasive authority, we hold that Penal Code § 853.5 provides the exclusive grounds for custodial arrest of a person arrested for an infraction," Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the three-judge panel.

The panel vacated the judgment on the state-law false arrest claim and sent the case once again back to District Court.

"If 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," Fisher wrote.

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