SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal judge refused to dismiss claims that a police officer doctored an incident report after his police dog attacked a bystander during an attempt to apprehend a fugitive.
Eric Diaz was wanted on several outstanding warrants and had eluded Santa Rosa Police Officer Michael Clark during a car chase that ended with Diaz crashing his vehicle and escaping on foot.
The next day, April 6, 2013, Clark and about 20 other Santa Rosa police officers responded to a tip that Diaz was hiding at a house in a Santa Rosa neighborhood where Kyle Biedma lived with his mother.
The officers had surrounded the property when Officer Clark heard a noise from one of the adjacent houses and saw Biedma walking toward him.
Biedma, 26, was not the man the officers sought, but he released his attack dog, Taz, which bit Biedma's arm and took him to the ground.
Clark says he thought Biedma was Diaz, but Biedma rejects that.
"The person defendant Michael Clark observed was not the criminal suspect for whom he was searching," Bidema said in his second amended complaint, filed in February. "The person was the plaintiff, Kyle David Biedma. Plaintiff is of northern and western European heritage. He looked nothing like the Hispanic or Latino criminal suspect. Nor, via his conduct, was plaintiff demonstrating any desire or intention to flee the scene. In fact, he was casually walking from his home to his personal vehicle in order to retrieve some cigarettes."
Police, allegedly realizing they had the wrong man, called for an ambulance to take Biedma to a hospital. While there, Biedma says, Clark asked him to confirm his version of the events, but Biedma related what happened from his own perspective.
Clark recommended the district attorney prosecute Biedma for resisting arrest.
It only took an hour for the jury to acquit Biedma in the ensuing criminal trial.
Biedma subsequently sued Clark and the City of Santa Rosa, which removed the case to Federal Court in San Francisco.
Biedma's amended complaint seeks damages for negligence, negligent training and supervision, false imprisonment, battery and violation of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments.
The defendants sought summary judgment on the false imprisonment and constitutional claims in October, saying Clark had reason to believe Biedma was Diaz.
But on Dec. 18 U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg said the evidence shows otherwise, pointing to discrepancies in Clark's version of events.
"A reasonable jury could find that Clark unreasonably concluded Biedma was Diaz," Seeborg wrote. "Although it was dark outside, Clark stated with certainty that he had a good look at Biedma and was certain he saw Diaz. Although Biedma's hoodie was above his head, Clark noted that he could see Biedma's facial hair, and there are considerable differences between Biedma's appearance and that of Diaz. The latter has darker skin complexion than Biedma, a very large, visible neck tattoo, thick eyebrows, a straight hairline and full lips. In contrast, Biedma does not have any visible tattoos, has a widow's-peak hairline, thin lips and thin eyebrows."
The judge also rejected Clark's claim that Biedma resisted.
"If a jury believes Biedma's version of events, which indeed the criminal jury may have, then Clark did not have a reasonable basis to arrest Biedma for resisting arrest," Seeborg wrote. "Like claims for false imprisonment under California law, whether an officer unlawfully seizes a person in violation of the Fourth Amendment turns on 'whether the arresting officer had a good faith, reasonable belief that the arrestee was the subject of the warrant' ... (A) reasonable jury could conclude Clark did not have a basis to believe Biedma was resisting arrest or that he was Diaz."
Seeborg granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on Biedma's claim of unreasonable seizure.
"The SAC [second amended complaint] avers that defendants subjected Biedma to an unreasonable seizure when Clark spoke with him in the hospital. Biedma now concedes that no reasonable jury could conclude that Clark unreasonably detained him."
As for the claim of malicious prosecution, Seeborg said, the chain of causation was broken based on the prosecuting attorney's reliance on Clark's report.
"Biedma has presented evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that the prosecutor relied on Clark's report to file the criminal charges without conducting an independent investigation," Seeborg said. "Critically, Biedma does not currently have access to information about the prosecutor's decision-making process. Biedma has sent subpoenas to the Santa Rosa District Attorney's Office to uncover evidence of any pre-charging investigation, but the district attorney has moved to quash the subpoena. Nothing in the record suggests that the prosecutor conducted any independent investigation, and so the Santa Rosa District Attorney's invocation of privilege undermines Biedma's ability to prove his case. As such, defendants cannot rely on the presumption of independence."
Seeborg said it does not end there, and found that Biedma has met the burden of providing evidence that Clark submitted a false report.
"To start, there are some inconsistencies between the report and Clark's subsequent testimony," the judge said. "In the report, Clark wrote that [Officer] Gillotte ordered Biedma to lie down on the ground. At his disposition, Gillotte denied ever giving the verbal order."
Seeborg pointed to additional inconsistencies and said, "the fact that Clark did not arrest Biedma on the spot may undermine [his] subsequent assertion that he believed Biedma had committed a criminal offense."
Finally, Seeborg granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment on Biedma's claim that the officers did not have the right to enter his property and his Fifth and Sixth Amendment claims based on the theory that Biedma was in custody while he and Clark spoke at the hospital.
"The jury will have an opportunity to decide what happened," said Biedma's attorney Rex Grady of the Edgar Law Firm in Santa Rosa. "The plaintiff's allegations are that a mistake was made when they sent the dog after my client."
Grady said his client also claims a second mistake was made when "they decided to charge him with resisting arrest."
He added: "Mike Clark to this day claims he (Biedma) was resisting arrest."
Santa Rosa Police Department spokesman Lt. Eric Litchfield did not immediately return a phone call made after hours.
Donald Edgar is co-counsel for Biedma. The case is set for trial in San Francisco on Feb. 29, 2016.
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