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5th Circuit Reverses San Benito Police Lawsuit Dismissal – Sauceda v City of San Benito, Et Al
On June 20, 2015, San Benito police officer Hector Lopez approached Ricardo Sauceda while Sauceda was standing in the front yard of his property. Lopez was responding to a call from Marco Cortez, a relative of Sauceda’s neighbors, who alleged that Sauceda had made rude comments and gestures toward him from across the street. Lopez spoke to Sauceda and demanded that he produce identification. Sauceda—speaking to Lopez from behind the chain-link fence that enclosed his property—declined and turned to go inside his house. Undeterred, Lopez pushed open the gate into Sauceda’s yard. Sauceda told Lopez he needed a warrant and pushed back. Within seconds, Lopez broke through, telling Sauceda, “I am coming after you, brother,” and, “You’re going to come with me, brother.” Lopez grabbed Sauceda and the parties physically struggled, with the fifty-year-old, disabled Sauceda brought to the ground. At one point, Lopez took out his baton. Sauceda claims he hit him with it; video evidence is inconclusive. Sauceda was taken into custody and, after receiving medical attention for his injuries, was charged with several offenses. All were dismissed.5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
USDC for the Southern District of Texas Dismisses the Lawsuit
Initially, the district court granted summary judgement in favor of all the defendants. A review of the appeal submitted by Sauceda has reversed a portion of the dismissal.
The 5th Circuit agreed the case did not represent liability on behalf of the City of San Benito, but it disagreed that Hector Lopez was not individually liable for the claim.
5th Circuit Rules the Officer Breached Private Property Without a Warrant
As the Supreme Court stated more than six decades ago: “The5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
Fourth Amendment, and the personal right which it secures, have a long history. At the very core stands the right of a man to retreat into his own home and there be free from unreasonable government intrusion.”
The 5th Circuit goes into an analysis concerning San Benito Police Officer Lopez and San Benito resident Sauceda. The opinion goes on to determine if Sauceda was in a secure part of his home when he was behind his closed fence on his property.
To the extent Lopez contends that Sauceda’s front yard was not part of the “home” for Fourth Amendment purposes, our review of the summary judgment record leads us to reject that contention. The videos clearly show what appears to be a single-family home on a normal-sized lot in a residential neighborhood. The sides of the lot that are visible are enclosed by a chain- link fence that is almost as tall as an average adult. There are also bushes behind the fence that obscure parts of the yard from street view. The only apparent access point is a gate, which Sauceda was seen closing in one of the videos, and which was not opened again until Lopez forced his way through it.5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
The next part of the analysis conducted by the 5th Circuit was related to the “hot pursuit exception.”
Under the hot pursuit exception, “the pursuit of a suspect [is an] exigent circumstance that may excuse an otherwise unconstitutional intrusion into a residence.”(citation omitted) But for the exception to apply, the suspect must be retreating from a “public place” to a “private place.” (citation omitted) A suspect’s movement from one point inside his home to another cannot trigger this exception. (citation omitted). And that is all Sauceda attempted to do here: move from the curtilage of his property—a part of the home, Jardines, (citation omitted)—to another point inside the home.5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
After the 5th Circuit determined the “hot pursuit exception,” did not apply, it determined Sauceda had a valid concern.
Because the hot pursuit exception does not apply (and because Lopez has not identified any other applicable exception to the warrant requirement), Sauceda has raised genuine issues of fact as to whether Lopez had authority to enter his property to arrest him for disorderly conduct5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
5th Circuit States Any Arrest Made By Lopez Could Not Have Been Lawful
Any arrest that Lopez made when he opened Sauceda’s gate and grabbed his hand could not have been lawful. As we have explained …, Lopez had no legal justification to enter Sauceda’s property without a warrant5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
The 5th Circuit also stated there was no probable cause to arrest Sauceda for failure to identify, or evading arrest .
However, a claim was made by the defendants that Lopez had probable cause to arrest Sauceda for assault on a public servant. The 5th Circuit addressed the matter as follows:
As discussed in the immediately preceding section, however, Sauceda was already “arrested” when Lopez opened the gate and grabbed his hand. Lopez’s body camera footage shows that Sauceda did not do anything resembling an assault before this arrest occurred. Therefore, summary judgment cannot be granted on this ground.5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
5th Circuit Determines District Court Must Determine if the Officer was Objectively Reasonable Under the Circumstances
Initially, the district court ruled that Lopez had probable cause to arrest Sauceda; however, the 5th Circuit viewed the conclusion in a different light:
The district court similarly granted Lopez qualified immunity based on its finding that he had probable cause to arrest Sauceda for resisting arrest. (citation omitted). Because Lopez did not have probable cause to arrest Sauceda for resisting arrest, the district court’s provision of qualified immunity to Lopez on this basis must be reversed. Qualified immunity may nonetheless protect Lopez’s conduct, however, if “a reasonable officer could have believed [the arrest] to be lawful, in light of clearly established law and the information the [arresting] officer possessed.” (citation omitted) We thus remand to the district court to determine whether Lopez’s conduct was objectively reasonable in these circumstances.5th Circuit, Case 19-40904, Sauceda v. City of San Benito, ET AL, dated August 15, 2023
Now the district court will need to determine if the actions by Lopez were objectively reasonable in under the circumstances. If so, Lopez may be entitled to qualified immunity. If not, then the case may proceed.
NOTE: This publishing is for educational purposes. Nothing in this publishing should be taken as legal advice. If someone needs legal advice or wants to know more about legal process please consult a licensed attorney.
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