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Sheriff's Department lawsuit costs rose to $43 million last year

Law EnforcementCrime, Law and JusticeLaws and LegislationJustice SystemAmerican Civil Liberties UnionLos Angeles County Board of SupervisorsLee Baca

Los Angeles County spent $43 million on lawsuits involving the Sheriff’s Department last year, accounting for nearly half of 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 lawyers for 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 Thursday by aides to Supervisor Gloria Molina, 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 in the department. 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 total 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 ... 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 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 he backed his car into an unmarked sheriff's vehicle following 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 its legal expenses 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.

Los Angeles County officials have sometimes resisted providing detailed information on the sheriff's legal spending. The American Civil Liberties Union and resident Eric Preven recently filed a lawsuit against the county after being denied 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 involved attorney-client material exept from disclosure under the state's public records law.

Twitter: @sewella

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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