For years, Los Angeles had waged a legal battle that ultimately went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, trying to overturn a verdict to pay $5.7 million to a man who was shot by police.
City attorneys argued that officers were justified in shooting Robert Contreras, who was fleeing a van that witnesses had linked to a drive-by shooting in South L.A.
But Contreras, who was left paralyzed by the shooting, triumphed over and over in the courts. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the city appeal, and on Wednesday the City Council approved paying nearly $6.9 million including interest and legal fees in the hotly contested case.
City lawyers “have run out of remedies.... They really don't have a choice” but to pay the money, said Dale K. Galipo, the lead attorney representing Contreras.
Galipo added that the case was significant because it showed that even if someone was allegedly involved in criminal activity, “if police officers act inappropriately and use excessive force against that person, they can still be held responsible.”
The legal dispute centered on a confrontation in September 2005. Two
Officer Mario Flores and Det. Julio Benavides, who was a police officer at the time, said that they had seen a gun in Contreras’ hand as he fled and that he had turned toward them with an object in his hand. They opened fire and shot Contreras multiple times, hitting him in the side and back.
After he was shot, Contreras was found to be carrying a cellphone. No weapon was found on Contreras or nearby after an extensive search.
Contreras, who pleaded no contest to attempted murder in the drive-by shooting and served time in state prison, later sued the city and the officers who shot him, accusing them of using excessive force.
In 2012, the City Council balked at a proposed $4.5-million settlement in the case, only to see a jury order the city to pay a bigger sum — $5.7 million — to Contreras.
During that trial four years ago, a U.S. district judge did not allow city lawyers to tell jurors that Contreras was a known gang member and that another man in the van told investigators that Contreras had gotten out of the vehicle armed with a gun, according to records obtained earlier by The Times.
City Atty. Mike Feuer sought to have the judgment thrown out, arguing that when the situation was viewed from “the officers’ on-scene perspective, not with 20/20 hindsight, their use of force was entirely reasonable under the 4th Amendment.” An internal police inquiry had cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
But the U.S. Supreme Court turned down the city appeal without comment in December, allowing the $5.7-million judgment to stand. In the past, the court had said that police could use deadly force to stop a fleeing suspect only if that person poses a threat to officers or the public.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had also rejected city attempts to overturn the judgment, emphasizing that no gun was recovered from the scene.
Galipo said the city had also struggled to make its case that Contreras posed a threat to the officers because the man had been shot in the back. “Clearly the jury did not believe it,” he said.
The city payout approved Wednesday includes the $5.7-million court judgment first awarded by a jury four years ago, plus accrued interest and more than $1.1 million in attorney fees.
Galipo called the sum “a life-changer” for his client. Feuer spokesman Rob Wilcox declined to comment on Wednesday’s decision.
Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.
Follow @latimesemily for what's happening at Los Angeles City Hall