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Public Defender Arrested for Being Late to Court Can Pursue Lawsuit

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 25, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A California public defender can continue with her lawsuit against the deputy sheriff who handcuffed her and dragged her through a courthouse, the Ninth Circuit ruled last week. A district court had ruled that the deputy, who was seeking to make sure that the attorney appeared when her case was called, had qualified immunity from the suit, an argument the Ninth rejected. There's no way that the deputy could reasonably believe he had a valid Fourth Amendment reason for the arrest, the unanimous panel held in an opinion by Judge Kozinski.

The ruling revives public defender Florentina Demuth's section 1983 suit against the county and sheriff's department of Los Angeles. At the same time, however, Kozinski scolded both parties for allowing a "tiff" to extend into a lawsuit that has lasted years and cost the city more than $1 million.

An Overzealous Deputy and a Handcuffed PD

Demuth was working as a public defender at the Los Padrinos Juvenile Courthouse in Los Angeles when the dispute at the heart of her suit occurred. As she arrived to the Courthouse, she checked in with the presiding referee ("a subordinate judicial officer") in her case and opposing counsel then left to work before being called back to the court. The referee in her case soon wanted her back, as she had to push through over 50 cases before 2:00 p.m. When Demuth didn't respond to pages or a phone call, the referee sent sheriff's deputy Wai Chiu Li to go get her, with the instructions that if Demuth refused, Demuth's supervisor will be brought in to explain her absence.

Li, it appears, wasn't having the best day. Though, as the Ninth Circuit notes, PDs are often absent from the courtroom when called and can take some time to corral, Li wanted Demuth present on command. Demuth, maturely, said that she was not ready at the moment and that if Li wanted her there right then, he would have to arrest her. He did, dragging her through the courthouse.

As Kozinski noted, saying "arrest me" to an officer isn't the wisest choice, but it doesn't change the underlying legal conflict -- that Li arrested an attorney with no justifiable Fourth Amendment reason. The deputy could not claim qualified immunity, since "no reasonable officer could have understood the referee as ordering that Demuth be forcibly brought into the court," the Ninth Circuit wrote.

Kozinski's Take on ADR

Though the deputy obviously overstepped, no one came out looking good in the court's eyes. Instead of litigating their wounded pride, Kozinski wrote:

The dispute should have been resolved by an admission that deputy violated Demuth's constitutional rights, followed by mutual apologies and a handshake, saving the taxpayers of Los Angeles County the considerable costs of litigating this tiff.

Los Angeles's neighbors to the north might want to take note. The City of San Francisco is facing a similar potential lawsuit, after public defender Jami Tillotson was arrested in court for advising her client that he didn't have to submit to photographing by police officers.

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