Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Fajardo v. County of Los Angeles

Citation. Fajardo v. County of Los Angeles, 179 F.3d 698, 1999 U.S. App. LEXIS 11233, 99 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4229, 99 Daily Journal DAR 5371 (9th Cir. Cal. June 3, 1999)

Brief Fact Summary. Maria Navarro called 911 to report a warning that she received regarding her estranged husband coming to kill her and other house guests. The dispatcher failed to send police because the husband had not yet arrived, and the husband killed four people on arrival. The Navarros brought suit claiming that it was the Sheriff Department’s practice to give lower priority to domestic-violence 911 calls.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The district court erred when it concluded as a matter of law that the Defendants’ domestic violence/non-domestic violence classification was rational and reasonable under equal-protection analysis because the court based this holding on the assumption that domestic-violence crimes are less injurious and because it equated domestic violence calls with not-in-progress calls.

Facts. Maria Navarro received a telephone call from the brother of her estranged husband, Raymond Navarro, warning her that he was on his way to her house to kill her and anyone else present. She called 911 and requested emergency assistance, informing the dispatcher about the warning, that she believed the warning, and that Raymond was under a restraining order. Upon learning that he had not yet arrived, the dispatcher informed her that she would have to call back if he arrived. Fifteen minutes later Raymond entered through the rear of the house and killed Maria and four other people, injuring two others. The Navarros claim that the County carried out a policy and practice of not treating 911 requests for assistance relating to domestic violence as emergency calls. The dispatcher testified that it was the practice of the Sheriff’s Department not to classify domestic violence 911 calls as Code 2 or emergency procedure calls. The Navarros sued Defendants under 42 U.S.C Section: 1983 fo
r allegedly giving lower priority to domestic-violence 911 calls than two non-domestic-violence 911 calls.

Issue. Did the district court err in its holding that Defendants’ practice of treating domestic-violence calls differently from non-domestic calls passed the rational basis test as a matter of law?

Held. The district court erred when it concluded as a matter of law that the Defendants’ domestic violence/non-domestic violence classification was rational and reasonable under equal-protection analysis.
It does not matter if it is rational to distinguish between in-progress calls and not-in-progress calls because that was not the distinction that Defendants allegedly made. Furthermore, whether domestic violence rarely results in death or severe injury does not, by itself, end the matter. The critical issue is whether domestic-violence crimes result in severe injury or death less frequently than non-domestic-violence crimes that are considered 911 emergencies.

If the Navarros can prove at trial that Defendants dispatch peace officers to prevent crimes that pose less or equal risk of death or severe injury than that posed by domestic violence crimes, then the Navarros would establish that Defendants’ asserted justification is a pretext. If the justification for discriminating against domestic violence crimes is pretextual, than Defendants’ actions are arbitrary and violate the Equal Protection Clause.

The district court erred by equating domestic violence calls with not-in-progress calls and equating non-domestic violence calls with in-progress calls, and by assuming that domestic-violence crimes are less injurious than non-domestic-violence crimes. Because these assumptions formed the basis f the district court’s conclusion, it also erred when it concluded as a matter of law that the Defendants’ domestic violence/non-domestic violence classification was rational and reasonable under equal-protection analysis.

Reversed and remanded for a hearing to determine first, whether the city had a policy or custom of giving lower priority to domestic-violence calls than to non-domestic violence calls, and second, if such a policy or custom exists, whether that policy or custom has a rational basis.

Discussion. The Court found that the district court’s finding that the Defendants’ classification was rational as a matter of law was in error because the court equated domestic violence calls with not-in-progress calls and assumed that they are less injurious than non-domestic-violence crimes.