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Dickens v. Debolt

Oregon Supreme Court
602 P.2d 246 (1979)


Facts

Arthur Dickens (plaintiff) and some family members went fishing below Oregon’s John Day Dam. Dickens caught a sturgeon weighing 40 to 45 pounds. Because Dickens did not have a way to keep the fish fresh until the next day, he strung a rope through the sturgeon’s gills, tied it under the fishing platform, and left it alive in the river. Golden and Elliot were fishing nearby, and Dickens asked them to keep an eye on his sturgeon. Dickens drove to a hotel for the night. That evening, a state police officer, Michael Debolt (defendant), observed Golden and Elliot fishing illegally below the dam. Debolt saw the men catch a sturgeon, string a rope through its gills, and tie it under the platform. He arrested the men, looked under the platform for the fish, and took the fish for evidence. Debolt did not realize that there were two sturgeons tied beneath the platform, and that he had taken the sturgeon caught by Dickens. Because the police did not have a freezer, Debolt took the sturgeon home, skinned and fileted it, packaged it, and put an evidence tag on the package. When Dickens returned to the dam the next morning, his fish was gone. He learned from Golden that Debolt had taken the fish. Dickens tried unsuccessfully to claim his fish from the police. He sued Debolt for conversion. At trial, Debolt produced the package of frozen fish, weighing only eight pounds. Concluding that Debolt had eaten much of the sturgeon, the jury found in favor of Dickens, awarding him $250 in general damages and $750 in punitive damages. Debolt filed a motion for a directed verdict, which the trial court denied. The court entered judgment against Debolt. Debolt appealed. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment, holding that under state law, Debolt had absolute immunity while acting in his capacity as a state trooper. Dickens petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court for review, and the court allowed his petition.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Tongue, J.)

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