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Proof of Law Enforcement Duty Is Primary Job to Establish Peace Officer Status

by David Reutter

The California Supreme Court reversed a conviction of misdemeanor battery upon a peace officer because the prosecution failed to prove harbor officers’ primary duty was law enforcement.

Bryan Pennington was not authorized to enter the Santa Barbara Marina. The manager witnessed his unauthorized entry and called the Santa Barbara harbor patrol. Harbor patrol officers Richard Hubbard and Ryan Kelly responded to the call in a marked harbor patrol truck, wearing uniforms, badges, sidearms, Tasers, handcuffs, and other policing tools.

They saw Pennington near a storage box, holding a coiled hose over his shoulder. The officers stood near the exit gate and blocked Pennington’s path. They told him to stop and said he could not leave with the hose. Pennington returned the hose and tried to walk past the officers. When they tried to use force to stop Pennington, he stepped back and forcefully kicked each and began throwing “wild punches.”

The officers subdued Pennington and restrained him until the Santa Barbara Police Department arrived to take him into custody. Pennington was charged with multiple offenses, including battery on a “peace officer.”

In a pretrial ruling, the trial court granted the prosecution’s motion to conclude as a matter of law that harbor patrol officers are peace officers within the meaning of Penal Code § 243(b). That section requires that an officer’s primary duty must be law enforcement in order to qualify as a peace officer. Because of the trial court’s ruling, the State was relieved of its obligation to prove that the harbor patrol officers’ primary duty was law enforcement. The jury convicted Pennington on all counts, including battery on a peace officer. 

The California Supreme Court reversed the battery conviction because the State failed to prove harbor patrol officers are peace officers within the meaning of the statute because it did not establish whether the harbor patrol officers were “primarily engaged in the enforcement of the law.”

The Court announced that the issue has significance that extends well beyond just this case. It explained that identical language that defines under what circumstances harbor patrol officers are deemed peace officers appears in several other statutes regarding various types of officers, including those with Bay Area Rapid Transit District, airports, railroads, legislature as sergeants-at-arms, court marshals, bailiffs, and many more. The Supreme Court reversed Pennington’s conviction for battery on a peace officer. See: People v. Pennington, 400 P.3d 14 (Cal. 2017). 



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