Chavez v. County of Sonoma (Calif.)

Judges: Tashima, Reinhardt, Molloy (District of Montana). Oral argument: April 19, 2017 in San Francisco. Prediction if I dare: reversed.

Argument in this case concerned a § 1983 lawsuit over a criminal defendant who was wrongfully jailed for 2 months for a parole violation when he wasn’t a parolee. Oops. Chavez sued the County that had jailed him, even though it was the State of California that handled his parole status. He asserted in part that the county jail staff owed him a constitutional duty (14th Amendment?) to investigate his parole status, which could have avoided the needless 2 months he spent in jail. The district court dismissed on summary judgment so it’s Mr. Chavez who appealed.

At oral argument, Chavez’s counsel drew on his obvious expertise in criminal defense to push back on the panel’s suggestions that Chavez or his counsel had ample opportunities to protest his innocent status during the 2-month period. He had a hearing or two on a separate criminal charge, the panel asked, so why didn’t you just mention the parole SNAFU to the judge? Because–counsel insisted–doing so would be flatly improper under California criminal procedural rules. Had I raised his parole status, said counsel, the judge would have stopped me because he had no jurisdiction to entertain my request.

Chavez’s counsel struggled with two burning questions the panel had for him: (1) why haven’t you addressed the county’s Monell liability in your brief, and (2) why didn’t you address qualified immunity? On the other hand, the panel seemed concerned about whether Chavez or jailed suspects like him had any adequate remedies other than this case at the moment.

Counsel for the county spent her time tackling persistent questions on why the county didn’t do more to make sure that this man in its jail facility was actually supposed to be there. The panel was clearly troubled by what had transpired in this case. But that doesn’t mean it will find a constitutional cause of action on these facts–particularly if the plaintiff-appellant hasn’t found a good Monell theory.

 

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