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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

San Francisco cops can’t dodge trial on wrongful arrest, conviction claims

Two inspectors face a July trial after a judge ruled they cannot use qualified immunity to escape most claims for helping to prosecute a man who spent 30 years in prison.

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — San Francisco police inspectors will face a trial following a judge’s finding Tuesday that they can’t use qualified immunity to avoid claims that their investigation led to the wrongful imprisonment of a man for 32 years. 

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore deemed Joaquin Ciria’s case against two San Francisco police inspectors ripe for a trial, denying most of their requests for summary judgment.

However, two conspiracy claims, a claim for nondisclosure of evidence, and all claims against one officer who filed a report based on the inspectors’ case against Ciria, will not proceed to trial.

Attorneys for Ciria did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Jen Kwart with San Francisco's city attorney's office said in an emailed statement, “We are pleased the court granted portions of our motion for summary judgment, and we are evaluating all options moving forward.”

The trial of Inspectors James Crowley and Arthur Gerrans is set for July 1.

Joaquin Ciria challenged the city for charging him with a 1990 killing he didn’t commit, leading to a conviction of first-degree murder at the age of 29. After spending most of his life behind bars, he was officially exonerated in the shooting death of his friend Felix Bastarrica in 2022 at age 61.

He accused the city in the same year of conspiracy and false imprisonment, among other claims, saying that officials deprived him of his civil rights by fabricating evidence "despite obvious evidence of his innocence."

Westmore said in a 24-page order Tuesday that Ciria made a sufficient case for “a triable issue as to the state of mind of Inspectors James Crowley and Arthur Gerrans.” She added that qualified immunity "cannot act as a shield to judicial deception."

The judge detailed the shaky case built by the city to charge Ciria for the shooting and prosecute him, from misidentifying him to using witness interviews with very little basis in fact, which led to his exoneration several decades later. 

At least one interview was coerced, as when the inspectors threatened to charge witness George Varela with murder if he did not identify Ciria as the shooter they were looking for.

"Much of the other cited evidence and witness interviews were not based on personal knowledge, and, instead, are more akin to gossip or rumor, which may not be relied upon for a finding of probable cause," the judge wrote.

The case built in total “falls far short of what is required for a finding of probable cause to arrest,” Westmore said, adding that it creates a triable case to explore “whether there was probable cause to prosecute.”

“If the jury believes plaintiff’s version of events, it could find that Crowley and Gerrans’ conduct, at the very least, involved reckless or callous indifference,” Westmore said. 

However, the judge granted most claims for summary judgment against Nicholas Rubino, another officer involved in filing the case against Ciria.

Westmore also granted summary judgment on the claims of intraconspiracy and state law conspiracy, and of nondisclosure of evidence, for the inspectors. She said the plaintiff failed to build a plausible case that any San Francisco department policy, custom or training was in place that would have allowed the inspectors to carry out the actions which Ciria accuses them of.

The city argued in a hearing before Westmore earlier this month that inspectors proved their investigation met the legal standard for probable cause, and that only the facts they had at the time they got the warrant matters. Attorneys cited a Ninth Circuit ruling that probable cause to arrest a person can come from an identification, a physical description and a connection to a vehicle used in a murder. 

Ciria’s family also separately filed claims in June 2023, saying they want the city to pay for his wrongful detention. His son Pedro and former partner Yojana Paiz say his conviction resulted from the city and police department’s “unconstitutional investigative policies” and a failure to train or intervene or to implement remedial measures to address “tainted, reckless and unconstitutional investigation and interrogation techniques.” 

Ciria says it was a pattern of tactics the city used to craft unreliable suspect identifications — including by suggesting that witnesses make less-than-certain identifications, selectively recording portions of interviews, falsely documenting witness identifications and priming witnesses to identify specific suspects.

The Northern California Innocence Project and The Innocence Commission successfully cleared Ciria’s name in 2020, saying police relied on rumors and coerced another man who drove the actual shooter to falsely name Ciria. 

At least five Black men were falsely convicted of murders that occurred between 1990 and 1991 in San Francisco based on fabricated evidence, unconstitutionally influenced witness identification or improperly incentivized evidence from San Francisco Police Department officers and inspectors. 

Follow @nhanson_reports
Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Regional

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