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L.A. County Sheriff's Department legal settlements rise in 2013

Law EnforcementCrime, Law and Justice

Los Angeles County spent $43 million on lawsuits involving the Sheriff's Department last year, accounting for nearly half the county's total litigation costs.

The county's overall spending on lawsuits was down from $115 million in 2012 to $89 million in the 2013 fiscal year, according to a report by the county's attorneys to the Board of Supervisors. The total includes settlements, judgments and legal fees for the county's own lawyers and outside law firms.

But costs for the Sheriff's Department rose, driven primarily by settlements and trial judgments in excessive force cases. According to figures provided by county Supervisor Gloria Molina's office Thursday, separate from the litigation report, excessive force cases cost the county $20 million last year, up $7 million from the year before.

The Sheriff's Department accounted for $37 million in litigation costs in 2012, county litigation cost manager Steve Estabrook said, making up about one-third of countywide lawsuit expenditures for that year.

The department has been under scrutiny over allegations of widespread abuse of jail inmates and misconduct. Last month, federal authorities announced criminal charges against 18 current and former deputies and supervisors. On Tuesday, Sheriff Lee Baca announced he would drop his reelection bid and retire at the end of the month.

The legal costs represent a relatively small chunk of the county's nearly $25-billion budget. But some county supervisors have complained in recent months about the high costs of Sheriff's Department lawsuits. Molina took to voting against settlements sought by the department last year, saying the board "needs to stop enabling the Sheriff's Department to continue to see its excessive force claims as just another cost of doing business."

"The department continuously finds that every action in the department is 'within policy' when juries continued to find otherwise," she said in November, after voting against a $722,000 settlement in a case of alleged abuse of a jail inmate.

Juries have been hard on the Sheriff's Department recently — of the 12 cases the county lost at trial last year, 10 were law enforcement cases, including a nearly $9-million award to the family of a man who was shot and killed by deputies after a car chase.

Among other county departments, the health services department, which runs the county hospital system, came in second in litigation costs, at $14.6 million, followed by the public works department at $8 million and the Department of Children and Family Services at $3.7 million.

Many counties do not track their legal costs by department, and a spokesman for the California State Assn. of Counties could not say if the proportion of litigation costs made up by the Sheriff's Department in Los Angeles County was typical.

In Orange County, which broke out the numbers at The Times' request, Sheriff's Department cases accounted for 48% of attorney's fees and litigation costs last year and 62% the year before. Those figures did not include settlements and judgments.

The county has sometimes resisted providing detailed information on the department's legal spending. The American Civil Liberties Union and resident Eric Preven recently filed a lawsuit against the county over denial of records requests seeking information about how much the county spent on outside law firms defending several specific lawsuits against the Sheriff's Department.

County attorneys said the billing information was protected by attorney-client privilege. The ACLU argued that the amount billed is a matter of public record and that the county could redact information about the specific tasks the attorneys did.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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