Leon v. County of Riverside
This appeal involves an important issue of California law regarding the scope of governmental immunity for egregious police misconduct—an issue at the core of our Access to Justice work.
The case revolves around Government Code section 821.6, which states: “A public employee is not liable for injury caused by his instituting or prosecuting any judicial or administrative proceeding within the scope of his employment, even if he acts maliciously and without probable cause.” (Emphasis added.)
The California Supreme Court has previously construed section 821.6 to grant immunity only for malicious prosecution. Despite that, a number of California Courts of Appeal have construed section 821.6 as immunizing almost any wrongful conduct by law enforcement personnel, so long as that conduct occurs in the course and scope of the officer’s employment.
That’s what happened here: the Court of Appeal issued a ruling that basically immunizes everything that the police do in the course of an investigation, regardless of how egregious the misconduct.
The facts of the case are horrific. It involves a Latino man, Jose Leon, who was killed by his neighbor while living in a mobile home park. He was shot outside his mobile home and lay face down on the pavement. When police arrived on the scene, they turned his body over and dragged him several feet, causing his pants to bunch down around his knees, exposing his genitals. They then left the body in that position, with face and genitals exposed, for seven hours, despite the pleading of his wife and neighbors that his body be covered out of respect. Their excuse was that they couldn’t find a blanket and that protocol required that the body shouldn’t be disturbed – even though the cops had already disturbed Mr. Leon’s body.
Mr. Leon’s widow retained counsel and sued the County of Riverside for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court threw the case out on immunity grounds and the Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that section 821.6 immunizes anything that a law enforcement officer does in the court of an “investigation.” The Court reasoned that “[b]ecause investigation is ‘an essential step’ toward the institution of formal proceedings, it is cloaked with immunity.”
The California Supreme Court granted to decide the scope of governmental immunity under California law.
- Leslie Brueckner
Steven Zwick and James Alquist of Zwick Law and Richard Antognini of Grass Valley California.