Yanes v. Maricopa County – 11/13/2012

November 12, 2012

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That Plaintiff Alleging Violation of 42 U.S.C. §1983 Based on Malicious Prosecution Must Prove Violation of Fourth Amendment Right Against Unlawful Seizure.

Plaintiff alleged that he was assaulted by a detention officer while being processed into jail on an arrest for child molestation and murder charges.  Two jail officers claimed in written incident reports that plaintiff had attacked first, and plaintiff was subsequently charged with aggravated assault based on the officers’ reports.  Plaintiff was later acquitted on the murder and molestation charges and the county attorney dismissed the aggravated assault charge against him.

Plaintiff filed suit alleging malicious prosecution, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and constitutional violations actionable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.  He also sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County, alleging they were liable for the detention officers’ conduct by endorsing an unconstitutional custom or practice of allowing detention officers to prepare false reports to cover-up abusive conduct against inmates.

At the close of plaintiff’s case at trial, defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law as to the § 1983 claim.  The trial court denied the motion and the case was submitted to the jury.  The jury found against the defendants on all counts, awarding $650,000 in general compensatory damages and $205,000 in punitive damages.  The trial court awarded plaintiff his attorneys’ fees and costs pursuant to § 1983.  Defendants moved for a new trial or to amend the judgment and renewed their motion for judgment as a matter of law.  The trial court denied the motions and defendants timely appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed portions of the judgment arising under § 1983.  Section 1983 creates a private right of action against individuals who, acting under color of state law, violate constitutional or statutory rights.  To establish a claim under §1983, a plaintiff must prove an actionable deprivation of a specific constitutional right.  Here, plaintiff’s sole basis for his §1983 claim was his allegation that, by falsely accusing him of aggravated assault, the defendants deprived him of his substantive due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment to be free from prosecution without probable cause.  Plaintiff asserted that the due process violation was based on the “constitutional tort of malicious prosecution.”

The Court of Appeals held that, under the circumstances alleged, a § 1983 claim arising out of malicious prosecution could not be based on an alleged violation of substantive due process rights.  Instead, the claim required a showing of a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of illegal seizures.  See Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 271-75 (1994).  But, the jury was never instructed on any Fourth Amendment theory or claim.

Because the Court reversed the portions of the judgment arising under the § 1983 claim, it also reversed the awards of attorneys’ fees and punitive damages under the federal statute.  The Court remanded to the Superior Court with instructions to amend the judgment in accordance with the Court’s opinion and separate memorandum decision.

Judge Gould authored the opinion; Presiding Judge Portley and Judge Timmer concurred.