Vol. 19 No. 4- Venegas V. Los Angeles County

32 Cal. 4th 820 (2004)

May 13, 2004

California Supreme Court holds that state sheriffs cannot be sued for federal civil rights violation in state courts.

Plaintiffs, husband and wife, filed suit in state court against defendants County of Los Angeles alleging causes of action under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Plaintiffs also claimed various state torts arising from an ongoing criminal investigation by members of a multi-jurisdictional task force of a suspect who was believed to be involved in an auto theft ring. During the course of their ongoing investigation, members of the task force detained and questioned Plaintiff David Venegas ( the suspect’s brother) and his wife Plaintiff Beatriz Venegas. David and Beatriz were already stopped and outside their car at a gas station about a block away from the area where the officers were preparing to execute a search warrant for the suspect’s residence.

The investigation led to a search of Plaintiffs’ residence which was minutes away from the gas station. The officers who participated in the search were informed by the lead investigating officer that the search was pursuant to consent.

Plaintiffs, however, complained that they were unlawfully detained and/or arrested during the criminal investigation, and that the search of their residence was unlawful because at the very least, it exceeded the consent intended to be have been given by them.

Under the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the state is absolutely immune from tort liability under the federal Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. §1983). Accordingly, as agents of the state when acting in their law enforcement roles, California sheriffs would likewise be absolutely immune from prosecution for asserted violations of that section.

For the first time, the California Supreme Court has held that California sheriffs act on behalf of the state when performing their law enforcement functions for purposes of 42 U.S.C. §1983 liability, and are thus immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment. This holding is significant because the State Court of Appeal had held that criminal investigations are not conducted on behalf of the state. In reversing the Court of Appeal on this issue, the State Supreme Court established that California sheriffs are state officers when carrying out their broad law enforcement functions, thereby precluding so-called Monell(1) claims arising from the exercise of such functions.

However, it is very important to note that this state court decision directly conflicts with the federal Ninth Circuit, which allows 42 U.S.C. §1983 suits against sheriffs. Therefore, these actions will be allowed in federal courts but not in state courts. In rendering its decision inVenegas, the California Supreme Court urged the United States Supreme Court to resolve this conflict. This will be important as, in light of the currently existing conflict between the State Supreme Court and the federal Ninth Circuit, Plaintiffs in civil right actions may now simply adjust their strategy by filing §1983 actions in federal court rather than in state court.

How this affects your agency?

As agents of the state when acting in their law enforcement roles, California sheriffs are absolutely immune from prosecution for asserted violations of 42 U.S.C.S § 1983 when these actions are brought in state courts. However, until and unless this conflict is addressed and resolved by the United States Supreme Court, it should be expected that the plaintiffs bar will simply file these actions in federal district courts.

1. Under Monell v. New York City Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), the only basis upon which a governmental entity, such as a sheriffs department, may be held liable is if the constitutional violation by an individual deputy was the product or outgrowth of a practice or custom of the department.