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A Los Angeles woman wrongly detained for forging a check can’t sue the bank that called the police, a split California Supreme Court ruled Monday. In a 4-3 ruling, the justices ruled that tips to the police — even bad tips, and even ones made in bad faith — are privileged communications and can’t be used as the basis for a suit in most circumstances. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Ronald George said immunizing tipsters “secures open channels of communications between citizens and law enforcement and other public officials charged with investigating wrongdoing.” George was joined by Justices Joyce Kennard, Ming Chin and Carlos Moreno. In dissent, Justice Janice Rogers Brown faulted the majority for providing blanket protection for all tips, including those that are potentially “destructive and criminal.” Because people arrested by mistake are “stigmatized,” only tips made in good faith should enjoy protection, she wrote. “Assertions that the charges were dropped, and of one’s actual innocence, will likely fall on deaf ears,” Brown wrote. Brown contended that in most jurisdictions around the country, tips enjoy only qualified immunity. She was joined in Hagberg v. California Federal Bank, 04 C.D.O.S. 75, by Justices Marvin Baxter and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar. Lydia Hagberg had sued California Federal Bank in 1999 for race discrimination, false arrest and imprisonment after bank employees reported her to police for trying to cash a suspicious-looking check. Minutes after the bank called police, they determined the check was good, but officers dispatched to the scene detained Hagberg for 20 minutes in handcuffs. In a companion case, Mulder v. Pilot Air Freight, 04 C.D.O.S. 84, the justices ruled 4-3 against a salvage operator who sued after an air freight company told police he possessed a stolen flight recorder. His office was searched, and an arrest warrant issued, but the matter was eventually dismissed. Civil Code § 47(b) bars tort claims stemming from communications made in legislative, court and other official proceedings authorized by law. But the majority noted that there are other deterrents, including criminal penalties for falsifying a crime report. The majority’s rulings were hailed by the attorney general’s office, which had filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of Cal Fed. “We think it’s important in the current environment that the absolute privilege of Civil Code 47 be extended to citizens who report suspects of wrongdoing of police,” said Supervising Deputy Attorney General Paul Hammerness. “The court pretty much accepted the rationale we forwarded, which is the importance of keeping open that channel of communication between citizens and law enforcement.” Peter Zablotsky, who argued the case for Hagberg, couldn’t be reached for comment. Nor could Gary Williams, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who filed an amicus brief on Hagberg’s behalf. Jules Zeman, a Haight, Brown & Bonesteel partner who argued for Cal Fed, referred questions to Citibank, which has since acquired Cal Fed. Spokeswoman Janis Tarter said the bank was “pleased with the opinion.” “We feel it’s thorough, well reasoned and consistent with the majority of decisions in California on this issue,” she said. “While we are respectful of individual rights,” Tarter continued, “the decision reflects that no Californian should fear expensive, protracted civil litigation when reporting suspected criminal activity to the authorities.”

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