Jury Verdict for Resisting, Delaying, or Obstructing an Officer Bars Subsequent Excessive Force Claim

By editor on September 23, 2021

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in the published decision Lemos v. County of Sonoma, recently held that a jury verdict convicting a plaintiff of resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer lawfully performing his duties barred a subsequent excessive force claim.

In June 2015, Sonoma County Deputy Marcus Holton heard screaming coming from a truck that was blocking traffic. He approached the truck and attempted to speak with an occupant, Karli Labruzzi. A bystander, Gabrielle Lemos, got between Holton and the truck. She yelled that Holton was not allowed to go inside the truck. Holton then pushed Lemos away and ordered her to calm down. She remained uncooperative so Holton requested backup. Eventually, Lemos began to walk away from the scene and Holton ordered her to “come here.” When Lemos did not respond and continued to walk away, Holton ran towards her and took her to the ground. She was arrested for a violation of California Penal Code § 148(a)(1) – resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer during the lawful performance of his or her duties.

In November 2015, Lemos filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim alleging that Holton used excessive force during her arrest. Sometime later, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office charged Lemos with a violation of Penal Code § 148(a)(1). The district court then stayed the federal action due to the pending state criminal proceedings. Lemos was convicted by a jury in August 2016. The stay was lifted in the federal case and the district court eventually granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The district court held that, pursuant to Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), success on the Section 1983 excessive force claim would imply that Lemos’s criminal conviction was invalid.

Lemos appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She argued judicial error on the ground that her criminal conviction and excessive force claim are not necessarily based on the same transaction. In other words, her constitutional claim was not barred by Heck because the jury may have determined that Lemos resisted, delayed, or obstructed prior to her actual arrest (e.g., when she blocked Holton from opening the door to the truck).

The Ninth Circuit disagreed and affirmed the district court’s decision. The Court highlighted the fact that Penal Code § 148(a)(1) requires, and the jury was instructed, that the criminal defendant resist, delay, or obstruct an officer lawfully exercising his or her duties. Lemos’s argument required “temporal hairsplitting” because there was no meaningful break between the possible criminal violations and the use of force. Here, the jury found that the officer did not use excessive force in the course of making the arrest.

The dissent argued that a valid Penal Code § 148(a)(1) conviction does not necessarily imply that the officer’s conduct was lawful throughout the entire encounter. The majority agreed with that general legal concept, but it argued that this “does not change the fact that the that the jury unanimously found that Holton acted lawfully throughout the continuous chain of events … even when he placed Lemos under arrest.” The majority noted that the jury reviewed the body camera footage, which captured the entire encounter.

It is often unclear the exact point in time that a suspect resisted, delayed, or obstructed an officer in violation of Penal Code § 148(a)(1). Even when there are multiple violations of Penal Code § 148(a)(1), prosecutors customarily only charge one count. As part of the terms of a plea agreement to a violation of Penal Code § 148(a)(1), prosecutors could request that the defense stipulate that the officer was lawfully performing his or her duties throughout the entire encounter. In jury trials, prosecutors should consider requesting a jury instruction that a guilty verdict require a finding that the officer was lawfully performing his or her duties during the incident.

A copy of the opinion can be found here.

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