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Spooner v. City of Phoenix - 11/27/2018

Court of Appeals Division One holds that qualified immunity shields a law enforcement officer from civil liability for simple negligence arising from investigative police work performed within the scope of the officer’s public duties.


A detective began investigating a woman’s conduct.  The detective testified about the investigation before a grand jury, which indicted the woman.  After the State dismissed the charges against her, the woman sued the City, alleging, among other claims, simple negligence.  After the close of evidence, the trial court judge entered judgment as a matter of law for the City on several of the woman’s claims, including her claim for simple negligence against the City.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the City on the remaining claims.  The woman appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in excluding the detective’s grand jury testimony as impeachment evidence and in entering judgment as a matter of law in favor of the City on her simple negligence claim.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  The Court held that the superior court did not abuse its discretion in excluding the detective’s grand jury testimony under Arizona Rule of Evidence 403.  A witness is entitled to absolute immunity for her grand jury testimony, preventing its use to support a claim involving a criminal prosecution.  The superior court reasonably concluded that the detective’s testimony would be unfairly prejudicial and likely to confuse the jury because it would constitute direct evidence of purported misconduct for which the City was absolutely immune.

The Court also held that the superior court did not err in entering judgment as a matter of law in favor of the City on the woman’s simple negligence claim.  Public entities and employees are generally liable for their negligence.  But common law qualified immunity provides public officials limited protection from liability when performing an act that inherently requires judgment or discretion.  A public official who consciously disregards the law or the rights of others remains liable for their gross negligence.  Because criminal investigations involve the exercise of personal deliberation and individual professional judgment, investigative police work performed within the scope of the officer’s public duties is discretionary and appropriate for exemption from liability for simple negligence.

Judge Jones authored the opinion; Vice Chief Judge Swann and Judge Weinzweig joined.

Posted by:  Phillip W. Londen

Posted On: 1/2/2019