Attorneys for Tulare County have filed an appeal to a Tulare County Superior Court Judge’s decision allowing a Farmersville couple to sue in the wake of an allegedly mishandled search warrant service by deputies of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO).
Appeal to Higher Court
In a June 18 decision, Hon. Nathan Ide ruled the TCSO and its officers can be held responsible for their actions during a heavily-armed search for drugs at the home of Brian Perez and Alba Dominguez early on the morning of December 16, 2019. The couple were held half-dressed at gunpoint, and allegedly threatened by officers who were apparently at the wrong address, say the couple’s attorneys.
While Ide agreed with county attorneys in his ruling that the TCSO deputies have legal immunity regarding the apparently botched drug raid, the couple may still seek damages for what plaintiffs’ attorneys say amounts to a false arrest, assault and battery.
The county has asked the Fifth District Court of Appeal to reverse Ide’s decision. The appellate court has yet to respond to the request, and the matter remains scheduled for a 10-day jury trial on January 10, 2022 in Ide’s courtroom.
County Says Officers Are Immune
In its appeal, attorneys for the county assert the officers who held Perez and Dominguez at gunpoint enjoy statutory immunity from prosecution, and the treatment of the couple was not only legal, but normal. Further, they maintain Judge Ide mistakenly ignored state law protecting public employees–Government Code 821.6–even if the employee “acts maliciously and without probable cause.”
“The complaint at issue basically an attempt to sue a law enforcement agency for actions taken in the routine execution of a search warrant (sic),” the county’s filing with the Fifth District states. “The trial court erred in not sustained (sic) the demurrers to the three causes of action which remain at issue (false arrest or imprisonment, assault/battery and infliction of emotional distress). …”
Attorney John Sarsfield, who represents Perez and Dominguez, said the county’s counsel is attempting to protect bad policing and illegal behavior on the part of its officers.
“They had no legal cause to stick guns in the faces of our clients,” he said. “They knew they were unarmed.”
Wrong Address Raided
No drugs were discovered during the search of Perez and Dominguez’s home, and the couple has since proven they were in Las Vegas at the time the TCSO claimed they were handling and dealing narcotics in Farmersville.
The raid appears to have been conducted on a warrant granted for the wrong address, the couple’s attorney asserts.
Prior to the raid, officers of the TCSO failed to consult the Farmersville Police Department, which had been in contact with Perez and Dominguez to warn them of suspicions the couple’s next door neighbors were trafficking narcotics. A background check of the couple would also have revealed Perez’s former employment as a probation officer.
Spokespeople for the county have declined to comment on the case, the erroneous address in the search warrant or officers’ alleged conduct during its service.
No Inherent Right to Assault, Batter
Sarsfield maintains the TCSO’s investigators had no basis to request a search of Perez and Dominguez’s home, and the warrant they were granted did not call for the arrest of the couple.
“What they didn’t have was an arrest warrant or a right to assault people,” he said.
The central issue that could sideline the case to the appellate court is whether a jury has the right to decide if the alleged crimes committed by the deputies are the basis for a civil rights lawsuit. Ide’s ruling, if upheld, allows the case to continue and could prove costly for the county if jurors eventually find in the plaintiff’s favor.
The county maintains detention of the couple was legal and protected, despite the deputies’ error. Perez and Dominguez, the county says, have no right to sue for damages due to any emotional distress its officers allegedly caused.
“Fundamentally, plaintiffs allege no more than the routine execution of a search warrant on a residence,” county attorney’s wrote in filings with the Fifth District. “There is clear authority permitting law enforcement officers to detain residents during execution of a search warrant. Therefore, such a detention does not constitute either wrongful imprisonment or false arrest.”
The Fifth District Court of Appeal has yet to respond to the county’s filing. Should it choose to review the lower court’s ruling, the case will be delayed until the review of Ide’s finding is completed, which could take months.
“That would suspend the underlying case until they’re done,” Sarsfield said.