No broad immunity for police officers involved in injury-causing acts

Government Claims Act generally protects public employer if its workers are immune

No broad immunity for police officers involved in injury-causing acts

Section 821.6 of the Government Claims Act does not give broad immunity to public employees such as police officers for harmful actions that they may take in the course of law enforcement investigations, a recent ruling said.

A recent case arose when a man was shot and killed in the driveway of a mobile home lot close to his home. The sheriff’s deputies of Riverside County arrived at the scene, heard additional shots, dragged the man behind a vehicle, and tried to revive him.

Being dragged caused the man’s pants to slide down and to expose his naked body, which stayed that way for about eight hours in view of the general public, including the man’s wife. In the meantime, the officers investigated the crime, searched for the shooter, and found that he took his own life shortly after shooting the man.

The man’s widow filed a lawsuit based on negligent infliction of emotional distress. She alleged that the deputies and the public entity employing them were negligent because they left her late husband’s body exposed for hours.

Read more: Emergency responder immune from liability for pedestrian's death

The case involved the application of certain provisions of California’s Government Claims Act. Under section 815.2(b), a public entity would ordinarily be immune from liability if its employees were immune. Section 821.6 made public employees immune from liability for instituting or prosecuting a judicial or administrative proceeding within the scope of their employment, even if they acted with malice and without probable cause. Section 821.6 covered claims of injury caused by wrongful prosecution.

The county filed a summary judgment motion. It argued that section 821.6 immunized the public employees and their employer from liability for all conduct relating to the investigation and filing of charges because the widow’s complaint arose from steps taken during the homicide investigation.

Case returned to lower court

The trial court and the California Court of Appeal ruled in the county’s favor. The appellate court found that a line of cases consistently interpreted section 821.6 as immunizing public employees from liability for injury-causing acts or omissions in the course of instituting and prosecuting judicial or administrative proceedings, including investigations before the initiation of such proceedings.

The deputies and their employer were immune because the employees’ alleged negligence occurred during the performance of their official duties and investigation of the crime, the appellate court said.

In the case of Leon v. County of Riverside, the California Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s judgment and returned the case for further proceedings.

The Supreme Court rejected the county’s argument that section 821.6 covered claims of injury caused by acts that were merely investigatory and unconnected to the prosecution of an official proceeding. The provision’s text and legislative history did not support this argument, the Supreme Court said.

The Supreme Court cited the case of Sullivan v. County of Los Angeles (1974). Here, the court examined the text and legislative history of section 821.6. The provision did not immunize a county and its officials from a false imprisonment suit based on the failure to discharge an inmate whose lawful term had expired, the court concluded in that case.

The legislative intent of the provision was to protect public employees from liability only for malicious prosecution and not for false imprisonment, the court added.

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