Falsified Complaint Verdict Set Aside After Judge Finds Malicious Police Report Privileged

In a rare development, a Superior Court Judge has set aside a $450,000 judgment a San Bernardino jury awarded a Yucca Valley woman after she prevailed at trial in a suit she filed over her false arrest and incarceration during the Christmas 2014 holidays. Her arrest was brought on by a dispute she had with a former business partner with connections to the sheriff’s department.
Lucinda Cox sued both San Bernardino County and her former business partner Hollis Griffin in 2015. On February 6, 2017 the matter between Cox and Griffin went to trial before Superior Court Judge Janet Frangie. On February 9, 2017 the jury entered a verdict in favor of Cox 10-2, finding that Griffin had made a falsified police report accusing Cox of forging a check from their joint signature account and that the sheriff’s department had falsely arrested Cox on the basis of that false report. After Cox prevailed against Griffin at trial, the county settled with Cox for an undisclosed amount subject to a confidentiality agreement.
On April 9, the jury entered a judgment of $450,000 in favor of Cox and against Griffin, made enforceable by Judge Frangie’s confirmation on May 5.
On May 4, Griffin, represented by attorney John Kremer, made a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for a new trial, citing the rationale that communication with a peace officer is privileged under California Civil Code Section 47(b). After the motion was filed, Frangie took the matter under submission and on June 5, 2017 set aside the jury verdict and entered a judgment notwithstanding the verdict in favor of Hollis, citing Section 47 (b) of the Civil Code, concluding an individual can make misrepresentations to police and that even if the false report is done maliciously it is privileged.
Cox’s unfortunate experience devolved out of the business relationship Cox once had with Holly Griffin, with whom she co-owned Elite Cosmetology, a cosmetology school, licensed by the state of California, to teach cosmetology. In February 2012 Cox and Griffin sold Elite Cosmetology School to M.N.R.J.M., LLC, a Florida limited liability corporation and during the last week of March 2012 the escrow closed and ownership of the school was transferred to M.N.R.J.M., LLC. Thereafter, Cox and Griffin commenced the process of winding down their operation of Elite and completing their obligations regarding the payment of all outstanding debts, the collection of all remaining tuitions and the filing of the appropriate state and federal tax returns for 2010, 2011 in 2012. Cox, on behalf of Elite, hired accountants and attorneys to assist in completing the winding up of Elite, reviewing the accounting, and preparing the necessary tax returns.
According to Cox’s lawsuit, “The accountants retained by plaintiff reported to her that the tax returns for 2010, 2011 and 2012 appeared to be inaccurate and inconsistent with the accounting records that they had reviewed. As a result they advised that amended returns needed to be prepared for all three tax years. In an attempt to prevent plaintiff from filing amended returns, in October 2013, Ms. Griffin filed a report with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department alleging that plaintiff had forged a check from a joint signature account. Plaintiff is informed and believes that prior to the police report being filed by Ms. Griffin, Heidi Hague was employed by the sheriff; was a personal friend of Ms. Griffin; was a personal friend of Ms. Griffin’s husband, Robert Griffin, who was employed by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office as an investigator; and [that Heidi Hague] was the sheriff’s detective in charge of the investigation of plaintiff.”
The lawsuit continues, “Hague received and reviewed the report filed by Ms. Griffin. She then subpoenaed selective records from Pacific Western Bank and selective records from Wells Fargo Bank. Hague attempted to talk to plaintiff who declined to talk to her outside the presence of an attorney. By her own admission and sworn testimony, she did no other investigation. Hague made no attempt to investigate any of the accusations made in Ms. Griffin’s police report. Had she done so she would have learned that almost all of the relevant facts alleged in that report were false. Had she asked for the complete records at the relevant banks she would have immediately become aware that all of the relevant and important dates contained in the report were false including but not limited to the source of funds in each of the accounts, the dates that the accounts were opened, the dates that the accounts were closed, the amount of money in the accounts, the ownership of the funds in the accounts, and most importantly the timing of when she became aware that the money had been transferred to pay creditors of Elite. When Hague received a copy of the alleged forged check she made no attempt to have the check examined to determine if it was in fact a forgery. When the check was finally sent to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department document examiner, it was determined that the check was not a forgery and that Ms. Griffin’s signature was authentic. Sometime after October 2013 Hague, without any further investigation, forwarded the report and the selective documents to the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Plaintiff is informed and believes that Hague recommended the filing of a complaint against plaintiff, knowing that she had ignored evidence, intentionally evaded collecting relevant evidence and that there was no probable cause for a complaint to issue. On May 9, 2014, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office filed a felony complaint alleging grand theft of personal property in the amount of $52,335 (Penal Code section 487 (a), forgery (Penal Code section 479(a) and embezzlement. On May 13, 2014, the district attorney sought and received an ex parte order under Penal Code section 1275.1, preventing plaintiff from posting bail without a hearing on the source of funds used for the bail and persuaded the court to set bail in the amount of $250,000, $225,000 in excess of the bail schedule set by the court. The court file contains no declaration supporting either the excessive bail or the Penal Code Section 1275.1 ex parte motion.”
A bail schedule from 2013 for San Bernardino County shows bail for a charge of grand theft was set at $50,000, forgery was $25,000 and embezzlement was $25,000. Any single one of those could have been set against Cox. Had they been combined, they would have been no more than $100,000.
Inexplicably, no effort to arrest Cox was made for more than seven months after the criminal complaint against her was issued. On December 23, 2014, two days before Christmas, sheriff’s deputies arrested her while she was at the home of two of her cosmetology clients, a man and wife.
“Due to the excessive bail and the ex parte order under Penal Code section 1275.1 plaintiff was held in custody in general population at the West Valley Detention Center for seven days,” according to the suit. “During that time, she was in constant fear for her life, was unable to eat, was threatened by other inmates, was unable to sleep, witnessed violence between other inmates and as a result has suffered and continues to suffer from severe post traumatic stress syndrome. On July 10, 2015 the case was dismissed for lack of probable cause, lack of evidence and failure to investigate. After the hearing on July 10, 2015 the San Bernardino County District Attorney provided plaintiff with the results of the handwriting analysis establishing her innocence. This document was withheld until after the court had dismissed the case.”
Cox was represented by attorney Keith Bardellini, who filed separate actions against both Griffin and San Bernardino County/the sheriff’s department/Hague. Bardellini took the separate civil case against Holly Griffin to trial in February, prevailing and obtaining the $450,000 judgment. Bardellini effectively argued that Griffin had orchestrated Cox’s false arrest out of malice over the potential legal difficulties Griffin faced as a result of Cox’s tax filings, and that Griffin was able to manipulate events because of her connections to the sheriff’s office.
Bardellini propounded Cox had been arrested without probable cause on charges that were neither thoroughly nor competently investigated and that she was subjected to abuse and mistreatment for seven days while jailed at West Valley Detention Center, where her bail had been improperly set at a quarter of a million dollars.
Based on Griffin’s falsifications, Bardellini argued that Hague, with whom Griffin had close personal ties, either deliberately and maliciously or incompetently, carried out a criminal investigation that erroneously and falsely concluded Cox had engaged in forgery, a direct consequence of which was that Cox was subjected to the false arrest.
The jury found 10-2 that the preponderance of evidence was in Cox’s favor and awarded her the sum of $450,000. Afterwards, the county elected to settle the suit Cox had filed against it.
Judge Frangie did not dispute or controvert that Griffin had furnished false information to the sheriff’s department and she initially confirmed the jury’s verdict and the $450,000 judgment. Nonetheless, after attorney John Kremer made a motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a motion for a new trial, Frangie found that state law holds that an informant’s statements to the police are privileged. As such, Frangie ruled that, since Cox prevailed in the suit on the basis of the jury’s finding that Griffin’s statements to the sheriff’s department were false, the basis for the jury’s determination had to be vacated. Thus, Frangie reversed the jury’s verdict.
Bardellini is now in the process of appealing Frangie’s ruling to the 4th District Court of Appeal.
“The judge ruled that the statement the defendant in this case, Holly Griffin, made to the sheriff’s detective was privileged,” said Bardellini. “That is the law in a situation where the information provided to a peace officer is true and accurate. In this case I respectfully disagree with the judge and I don’t believe that information that is given to a law enforcement officer to intentionally mislead the investigator qualifies as privileged communication. I do not believe that was the legislature’s intent with this law. There is no case that I know of that says you can make a knowingly false misrepresentation to a member of law enforcement and be privileged in doing so. I believe, and so do several other attorneys that I have spoken with, that the question of privilege with regard to making an intentionally false statement to law enforcement remains an open legal question. There is something wrong here. Deliberately providing false statements to weaponize the police department against one’s enemies should not be permissible and in my opinion is not permissible. In this case, we had a 61-year-old woman who until that point had been a model citizen spend a week in jail fearing for her life because of just such false statements. I don’t believe the people of California believe it is okay to lie to law enforcement to get officers to do bad things to people. The last chapter on this case hasn’t been written yet.” –Mark Gutglueck

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