Appeals court affirms denial of class certification in civil rights case against Sonoma County, City of Santa Rosa

By Gabriel Neves | Dec 31, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO — Two out-of-state drivers who had their vehicles impounded for over 30 days in alleged violation of the Fourth Amendment have suffered a loss in court.

U.S. Appeals Judge J. Clifford Wallace, on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, issued a 26-page ruling on Dec. 21 affirming the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California's decision in the lawsuit, filed by Rafael Mateos Sandoval and Simeon Avendano Ruiz against Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office (SCSO), Santa Rosa Police Department, Steve Freitas and Tom Schwedhelm.

The court affirmed the district court ruling that denied a class certification, dismissing the plaintiffs' arguments that the impoundments violated the Fourth Amendment, also affirming a summary judgment on claims that the city owed Sandoval and Ruiz monetary damages.

"On January 27, 2011, a County deputy sheriff stopped a truck driven by Rafael Mateos Sandoval for a minor traffic infraction," the ruling said.

After learning that Sandoval did not have a California Drivers License, a sheriff's deputy impounded the vehicle, although Sandoval had a valid Mexican license, and his friend was licensed in the state.

Sandoval attempted to get his truck back, but the officer "conducting the storage hearing denied Sandoval’s request, on the basis that his license was invalid for California residents and that the tow and storage was authorized by state law and local policy," with him only getting his vehicle only 30 days after the incident, the ruling said.

A similar approach took place with Ruiz.

"On September 1, 2011, Santa Rosa police officers stopped Simeon Ruiz at a checkpoint, where they learned that he did not have a California driver’s license. Although Ruiz had an expired Mexico driver’s license and a friend with a valid California driver’s license who could have taken possession of the vehicle, the officers decided to impound Ruiz’s vehicle under section 14602.6. Ruiz unsuccessfully attempted to have his truck returned the following day, and the official conducting his storage hearing later denied his request after being shown Ruiz’s Mexico driver’s license. Ruiz did not regain possession of his vehicle until the 30 days expired and he paid the storage fees," the ruling said.

In addition to the Fourth Amendment, Sandoval and Ruiz also claimed violation of the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the California Bane Act.

In his ruling, Judge Wallace said the "defendants had failed to provide any justifications for the impounds other than general arguments that such impounds were justified as a deterrence or penalty."

Judges had already "rejected these arguments, at least on the facts of this case, and held that the district court did not err by granting summary judgment for plaintiffs on their Fourth Amendment claims," he said.

The court confirmed the class certification denial on grounds of lack of commonality and typicality on the claims.

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Case number 16-16122

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