On June 22, 2023, the California Supreme Court issued a published opinion in Leon v. County of Riverside, Supreme Court Case No. S269672, which greatly limits Government Code section 821.6 immunity for the instituting of prosecuting a judicial proceeding.  This case will have an important impact on the liability exposure concerning law enforcement officers or other public employees for their conduct during the course of investigating crime.


Jose Leon was shot and killed by a third party in the driveway of a mobile home lot near his home.  When Riverside County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on scene they heard additional shots and dragged Leon behind a car, where they unsuccessfully attempted to revive him.  During the course of dragging Leon, Leon’s pants slid down around his ankles, exposing his naked body for several hours while the deputies took cover, searched for the shooter, and investigated the incident.  Leon’s wife sued for the emotional distress she endured based on observing Leon’s exposed and uncovered body for multiple hours.

The County of Riverside moved for summary judgment under several theories, including Section 821.6 immunity.  Pursuant to this statute, public employees are immune for “all conduct related to the investigation and filing of charges.”  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the County, a ruling which was upheld by the California Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court, however, reversed the grant of summary judgment.  In so doing, the Court looked at two cases:  Sullivan v. Los Angeles and Asgari v. Los Angeles.  In Sullivan, the Court determined that while Section 821.6 might provide immunity for malicious prosecution, there was no such immunity for false imprisonment.  Similarly, in Asgari, the Court determined that an officer could be liable for false arrest and false imprisonment, even if he or she were not liable for malicious prosecution.


Although some commentators have opined that this case sounds like a death knell to officer immunity defenses in California, this is not the case for several reasons.

First, the Leon Court addressed the issue of Section 821.6 immunity only; it did not address any of the other statutory immunity defenses that are available to law enforcement officers, including discretionary act immunity. See Government Code §§ 820.2, 820.4, 825-825.6.  Indeed, the Supreme Court explicitly declined to consider these other sections as they had not served as a basis for the trial court’s ruling.

Second, Leon reaffirms that law enforcement officers still have Section 821.6 immunity for malicious prosecution claims under the clear language of the statute as nothing has changed in that regard. 

Third, the Supreme Court also indicated that while Section 821.6 immunity might be limited for the investigatory phase of a proceeding, it remains intact for the prosecutorial phase of an investigation. The Court further noted, “Although this language is certainly broad enough to include traditional malicious prosecution claims alleging malice and a lack of probable cause, the inclusive phrase ‘even if’ makes clear that the statute is not limited to traditional malicious prosecution claims; suits for damages arising from a negligent prosecution are covered too.


The California Legislature has gone through great lengths to codify numerous statutory immunities for law enforcement officers.  Accordingly, any limitations on the application of such defenses are troubling, to say the least.  With that being said, the Leon court case did nothing to invalidate any of the other statutory immunities which might be available; it merely decided that the law enforcement officers were not entitled to immunity under this particular section of the Government Code for purely investigative purposes.

The legal issues raised by this opinion are subtle and can turn into what would appear to be trivial facts.  Each situation is different.  If you find yourself in a similar situation, please contact your retained legal representative for case-specific advice relevant to your issue.

As always, if you want to discuss any of this in greater detail, do not hesitate to contact James Touchstone at jrt@jones-mayer.com or by telephone at (714) 446-1400.Information on www.jones-mayer.com is for general use and is not legal advice.  The mailing of this Client Alert Memorandum is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client-relationship