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Ninth Circuit Affirms Judgment Obtained by San Francisco Partners Gregg Thornton and Danielle Lewis

Town of Colma Prevails in Civil Rights Lawsuit

In a recent case against the Town of Colma, et al., the plaintiff was involved in a late-night motor vehicle accident.  A Colma police officer responded to the scene to conduct an investigation.  At the scene, the plaintiff admitted to being intoxicated by alcohol, but denied he was the driver of the car.  Instead, the plaintiff contended that a different individual was driving, and that the plaintiff was merely a passenger in the car at the time of the accident.  Following an investigation, which included witness interviews, scene analysis, and positioning the plaintiff and the person who the plaintiff alleged was driving behind the steering wheel of the car, the Colma police officer concluded that there was probable cause to arrest the plaintiff for driving while under the influence.

Next, while the District Attorney was pursuing a criminal prosecution against the plaintiff for a misdemeanor DUI, the plaintiff presented the District Attorney with a declaration by a third party percipient witness.  In the declaration, the percipient witness appeared to say that he had seen the entire accident and that the plaintiff was not the driver of the car at the time of the accident.  In response to receiving this new declaration, the District Attorney asked the arresting Colma police officer to investigate the declaration.  The Colma police officer contacted the purported witness.  The witness denied seeing any accident, and denied signing any declaration.  When the percipient witness' signature was compared to the signature on the declaration, they looked very different.  The Colma police officer presented his findings to the District Attorney.

When the District Attorney received the evidence in connection with the declaration produced by the plaintiff, the District Attorney concluded that the plaintiff had fraudulently created the declaration, and forged the alleged percipient witnesses' signature, in order to gain an advantage in the pending misdemeanor DUI criminal prosecution.  As a result, the District Attorney added three new felony counts to the plaintiff's criminal prosecution.  Ultimately, the plaintiff entered into a plea bargain that included pleading guilty to the misdemeanor DUI charge, in exchange for the District Attorney voluntarily dropping the three felony charges.

At the conclusion of his criminal prosecution, the plaintiff sued the Colma police officer, the Colma chief of police and the Town of Colma for violating his civil rights.  Specifically, the plaintiff's complaint alleged that the Colma police officer unlawfully arrested the plaintiff because the plaintiff was not the driver of the car at the time of the accident.  The plaintiff also alleged that the Colma police officer coerced the supposed percipient witness to recant his declaration.  As of result, the plaintiff contended that his criminal prosecution was tainted.  The plaintiff asserted a claim for malicious prosecution under the First Amendment, claiming he was denied his right to access the court.  The plaintiff sued the police chief for failing to properly hire, train, and supervise the arresting Colma police officer.  Finally, the plaintiff sued the Town of Colma pursuant to Monell v. Dept. of Social Services of the City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978).

Gregg Thornton and Danielle Lewis of Selman Breitman LLP responded to the plaintiff's original complaint, first amended complaint, and second amended complaint with motions to dismiss, pursuant to FRCP 12(b)(6).  In each instance, Gregg and Danielle argued that the plaintiff's claims were barred by Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994).  In Heck, the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff criminally convicted in state court cannot recover damages in a section 1983 suit if judgment in favor of the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence, unless the plaintiff can demonstrate that the conviction or sentence has already been invalidated.  In response to Gregg and Danielle's motions, the District Court found that the plaintiff had pleaded guilty to DUI, which included an admission that the plaintiff was the driver of the car at the time of the accident.  Consequently, the plaintiff's civil rights claims were barred by Heck.  Also, the District Court held that, to the extent the plaintiff alleged a malicious prosecution claim, that claim failed as the plaintiff was not able to allege that the underlying state court criminal prosecution proceedings terminated in such a manner as to indicate the plaintiff's innocence.  Lastly, the District Court held that, because there was no constitutional violation, all claims against the police chief and the Town of Colma fail as well.

The District Court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss with prejudice, as to all claims against all defendants.  Judgment has been entered in favor of the defendants and against the plaintiff.  The plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  On Thursday, September 14, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the Colma defendants on all grounds, and issued a memorandum affirming the District Court's judgment.  The Colma defendants were also awarded costs on appeal.

For more information on this case, please contact Gregg Thornton or Danielle Lewis.


Selman Breitman provides this information for educational purposes. Case results depend upon a variety of factors unique to each case. Case results do not guarantee or predict a similar result in any future case. This information should not be construed or relied on as legal advice or to create a lawyer-client relationship.