Court rejects 'Fajitagate' lawsuit

Retired San Francisco police Chief Earl Sanders lost a bid to the U.S. Supreme Court today for reinstatement of most of a lawsuit he filed over the city’s so-called “fajita-gate” case. The high court declined to review a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in March that dismissed all but one claim in a lawsuit Sanders filed against former district attorney Terence Hallinan in 2004.

Sanders was one of seven top police officers who were briefly indicted, then cleared, in 2003 of charges of obstructing a probe of a fight between three off-duty police officers and two men over an order of fajitas outside a Union Street bar in 2002. Sanders’s lawsuit accused Hallinan of malicious prosecution and other civil rights violations.

The appeals court said Hallinan was entitled to absolute immunity from being sued for his actions as a prosecutor. The only claim the appeals court allowed was Sanders’s contention that Hallinan retaliated against him for exercising his free-speech right to criticize allegedly defamatory remarks made by the district attorney.

The court said winning that claim would be an “uphill battle” because Sanders would have to prove that Hallinan intended to defame him and that the alleged defamation was separate from Hallinan’s work as a prosecutor.

Charles Ralston, a lawyer representing Sanders in the appeal, said, “We’re disappointed” that the high court refused to revive the malicious prosecution claim in the lawsuit.

Ralston said, “We think that sometimes the Supreme Court needs to look at prosecutors receiving absolute immunity. Absolute immunity gives more protection than is really needed and sometimes results in injustice.”

Ralston cited a federal lawsuit filed by three former Duke University lacrosse players in North Carolina this month as an example of a case where he believes a prosecutor should not be given absolute immunity from being sued. Ralston said Sanders’s trial lawyer, Charles Bonner, plans to go ahead with pursuing the remaining claim in the case. Bonner was not available for comment today. A case management conference on the lawsuit is scheduled before U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco on Friday.

Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said, “We are gratified but not surprised that the Supreme Court let stand the 9th Circuit ruling.”

Dorsey said, “We’ve been expressing confidence all along that we would prevail and we think that will still be the case” with the remaining claim in the lawsuit.

— Bay City News

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