The city of Los Angeles will pay as much as $30 million to assist thousands of people who were subjected to unlawful curfews included in city gang injunctions.
The money, which will be used primarily to provide job training for gang members, is the centerpiece of an agreement to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused the Los Angeles Police Department of enforcing curfews written into many gang injunctions years after they were struck down as unconstitutional.
The City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the deal. The judge in the lawsuit must still approve the settlement.
“This is taking an injustice that never should have happened and turning it into an opportunity to start over,” said Anne Richardson, an attorney involved in the lawsuit.
City Atty. Mike Feuer urged council members to approve the deal in a confidential memo obtained by The Times. The settlement, one of Feuer's deputies emphasized in the memo, would establish clear rules for enforcing injunctions and avoid the possibility of a jury verdict that could have forced the city to pay off gang members.
“The city must resolve this litigation,” the memo said. “The settlement creates opportunities for gang members to obtain basic job skills … that can turn their lives around, and does so without giving any direct payments to gang members.”
In an interview, Feuer called the deal “an opportunity for the city to grapple with one of its most important problems in a constructive way.”
Nearly four dozen injunctions are in place throughout some of the city's roughest neighborhoods. They are court orders that aim to severely curtail gang activity by, among other things, prohibiting gang members and their associates from socializing with one another, carrying weapons or wearing certain clothing inside an injunction's designated area — typically the neighborhoods where the gangs are active.
Although gang crime has climbed recently, the city has made large gains over the last decade in tamping down gang violence, drug dealing and other crimes. While officials credit the injunctions with playing a large role in that progress, critics point to the rosters of people ordered to abide by the injunctions, saying they include those who have no gang ties.
In 2011, attorney Olu Orange filed a federal lawsuit challenging curfew provisions included in 26 of the city injunctions, which prohibited people from being outside after 10 p.m.
In enforcing the curfews, police and city officials were willfully ignoring a 2007 California appeals court ruling that a similar curfew in another city violated individuals' due process rights, Orange contended. In that ruling, the court found that an
injunction against an Oxnard gang did not adequately define what it meant for someone to be “outside” during the hours of the curfew.
The wording was “so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning,” the court concluded.
The lawsuit filed by Orange stemmed from the arrest of Christian Rodriguez, a teenager living at the time in the Mar Vista Gardens housing project, a stronghold of the Culver City Boys gang.
Rodriguez was neither a member nor an associate of the gang but had been included in the injunction because of an older brother's ties to the gang, Orange said. LAPD anti-gang officers arrested Rodriguez for violating the curfew late one night in June 2009 when they found him outside with friends at the housing project's handball courts.
The criminal charges against Rodriguez were dropped, and in 2012 police officials ordered officers to stop enforcing the illegal curfews. Orange nonetheless pursued a broader class-action case on behalf of the roughly 5,700 people living under the gang
injunctions with illegal curfews.
“Because I was wrongly labeled as a gang member, I couldn't even be outside helping my mom with the groceries at night,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “I got involved in this case to help others who like me,
did nothing wrong but unjustly live in constant fear
of doing something that might be perceived by a member of LAPD as a violation. I want my 2-year-old daughter to grow up without that fear.”
LAPD officials did not respond to calls for comment on why the department continued to enforce the curfews years after they were found to be illegal. Feuer said he wasn't in city office at the time.
After the 2007 appeals court ruling, the city attorney's office wrestled with what to do. In court papers, a former supervisor of the office's anti-gang section acknowledged that her unit had considered notifying people living under the injunctions that the curfews were no longer being enforced, but abandoned the idea because it would be too difficult to locate people and might create confusion. Years later, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the city to make the notifications by early 2013.
The lawsuit dragged through the courts for years. Last year, in a preliminary finding, Gee ruled that the city had violated the due process rights of people living under the injunctions. Gee cleared the way for the case to go to trial and said she would instruct jurors they must award some amount of money to each person in the lawsuit's class, according to the city attorney's memo.
With a trial date approaching, the two sides began settlement talks in recent months. Orange, now joined by Richardson and class-action specialist Dan Stormer, demanded nearly $30 million in direct payments to the thousands of people living under the injunctions, the city attorney memo said. Eventually, the two sides agreed to the idea of the city helping to fund nonprofit organizations that would provide the job training.
The amount the city will pay into the fund depends on how many people come forward. Anyone covered by the gang injunctions challenged in the lawsuit is eligible to benefit, even if they were not arrested for curfew violations.
Under the terms of the deal, the city must commit at least $4.5 million and as much as $30 million over the next four years to nonprofit groups. The money will pay for people included in the lawsuit's class to attend job training classes and apprenticeship programs. Some of the funds will be earmarked for tattoo removal for people looking to leave gangs and wanting to erase signs of their affiliation.
The city must also cover the plaintiffs' attorney fees, which are expected to be as much as $5 million, according to the memo.
The settlement also looks to clear up confusion that arose after the appeals court decision for police and city lawyers over how to enforce the injunctions. In the future, when someone is included in a gang injunction, the city will include papers explaining that the outlawed provisions are no longer enforced as well as information on available social services and how to petition to be removed from an injunction roster.
The agreement is the latest in a string of payouts approved this year. The city had originally budgeted roughly $54 million for paying or settling legal claims this budget year, but last month City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said the city had already approved nearly $83 million in legal payouts and probably would end up spending $110 million before the end of the fiscal year.