SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A Santa Monica Police detective must defend herself from civil charges of interfering with a witness in a dismissed 2008 murder case, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled Tuesday.
Plaintiff Kelly Soo Park in July 2013 was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder charges arising from the 2008 death of aspiring actress and model Juliana Redding in Santa Monica.
Park claims police Det. Karen Thompson et al. conspired to violate her civil rights by intimidating and dissuading a witness from testifying on her behalf. She says Thompson et al. filed charges against potential defense witness Melissa Ayala, to get her to invoke her Fifth Amendment right and refuse to testify on Park’s behalf.
The three-judge panel of Ninth Circuit Judges Stephen Reinhardt, Ferdinand Fernandez and John Owens reversed and remanded U.S. District Judge James Otero’s dismissal of Park’s civil rights complaint against Thompson and unnamed defendants.
“The fact that Park was eventually acquitted does not render Ayala’s testimony immaterial, nor does it bar Park’s Section 1983 action stemming from violations of her rights during the underlying criminal investigation and prosecution,” Reinhardt wrote for the majority.
“Park has alleged misconduct by Thompson that rises to the level of substantial interference with a defense witness in contravention of the Compulsory Process Clause of the Sixth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.”
The judge added: “Park has pleaded a sufficient causal connection between Thompson’s misconduct and Ayala’s unavailability.”
Although the charges against Park eventually were dismissed, she sued Thompson et al. for “orchestrating criminal charges against Ayala with the intention that she invoke the Fifth Amendment and reuse to testify on Park’s behalf,” Reinhardt wrote for the majority.
The panel agreed that Park sufficiently argued that Thompson’s conduct amounted to substantial interference with a defense witness in violation of her rights and caused the witness to refuse to testify.
Park sought to have Ayala testify that Redding’s boyfriend was prone to domestic violence and a more likely murder suspect.
Ayala once dated Redding’s boyfriend and told an investigator he had been violent and tried to choke her at least three times, Reinhardt wrote.
Park claimed Thompson conspired with members of El Segundo Police Department to orchestrate assault and criminal threat charges Against Ayala stemming from an incident a year earlier.
Park said: “Thompson … told the El Segundo Police Department that it was important to file charges against Ayala as soon as possible because the charges would cause her to invoke the Fifth Amendment, thereby precluding her from testifying,” Reinhardt wrote in his 33-page majority opinion.
Although Park eventually was acquitted, the panel agreed the Ayala’s testimony likely would have cast doubt on the government’s criminal case against Park.
The panel also agreed that Park supported her conspiracy claims with facts, which makes them plausible.
In a 5-page dissent in part, Judge Fernandez wrote that Park did not sufficiently show a connection between Thompson’s actions and Ayala’s decision to not testify in her case.
But Fernandez concurred that qualified immunity remains an issue and should be remanded to the district court.
Becky James, with Rosen, James & Stewart, argued on Park’s behalf.
Santa Monica Deputy District Attorney Anthony Serritella argued on behalf of Thompson.
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