Downey Must Pay $200,000 Award in Strip-Search Case

Times Staff Writer

A jury in federal District Court has awarded a Los Angeles woman $200,000 in damages because her civil rights were violated during a 1979 arrest and strip-search by city police.

On Sept. 17, 1979, Kimberly Renee Paul, then 14 years old, was lying asleep in a car when she was awakened and arrested at gunpoint by Downey plainclothes detectives on suspicion of armed robbery, said Yvonne M. Renfrew, Paul's lawyer.

She said in an interview Thursday that the arrest of Paul, now a 20-year-old U.S. Army private first class at Ft. Hood, Tex., was unreasonable, racially motivated and done without due process of law.

Renfrew said that Paul, who is black, was "terrified" by the incident and "humiliated" during a strip-search performed at the police station by a jail matron. The arrest and strip-search have left Paul with recurring nightmares, Renfrew said.

Released Within an Hour

Within an hour of her arrest, Paul was released by police, who testified in court that they apologized to Paul for the incident, said Police Chief William Martin.

Reacting to the jury award, which was made Wednesday in federal District Court in Los Angeles, Martin defended the conduct of his officers, saying police policies and procedures would not be changed as a result of the case.

"We did absolutely nothing wrong," Martin said Thursday.

The detectives were investigating a 4 p.m. holdup of Middle Earth Discount Records & Tapes on Lakewood Boulevard, and Paul fit the description of a possible accomplice, Martin said.

The city's lawyer, Thomas J. Feeley, said he would ask for a new trial or a reduction of the jury award, which he claimed was "excessive" because the woman was in custody for less than an hour. The city "most likely" would appeal the case if Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. fails to grant either request, Feeley said.

But Renfrew said in an interview that her client deserved the award because of a "lack of sensitivity" displayed by city police during the robbery investigation. In courtroom testimony, officers said they were stopping every black person in sight near the crime scene, both Renfrew and Martin said.

'Most Unfortunate'

"I think it's most unfortunate that a black citizen still needs a passport to go to Downey," Renfrew said.

"I think the department is making a serious error not to consider this an appropriate occasion to reevaluate their practices and conduct," she said.

Police said in court testimony that they were acting on a description given by the robbery victim, who said he was held up by two black males, as well as a description from a woman interviewed near the crime scene, Martin said. Police later determined the woman interviewed was an accomplice and that Paul was not involved, said Martin.

"We were being responsive to a description given by a victim," Martin said. "If he (the victim) had said Chinese people had robbed him, we would have been looking for Chinese people."

The woman who was interviewed near the crime scene had told police that she saw the two men who had committed the robbery in a black Chrysler, Martin said. The woman said the Chrysler was left in the parking lot of the nearby Riviera Sofa Bed store on Lakewood Boulevard, where police later found a black Chrysler, with Paul in the back seat, Martin said.

Paul told police she was waiting for her aunt, whom police attempted to find without success before taking Paul into custody. The aunt, Brenda Morris, subsequently turned up at the police station and demanded that her niece be released, Renfrew said.

One Man Convicted

Police arrested one man for the robbery--who was convicted--but the other suspect has never been apprehended, Martin said. The woman who misled police was never charged.

While the jury awarded $200,000 of the $250,000 in damages sought by Paul from the city, it rejected Paul's request for punitive damages of $1 million from Martin and Officer Charles Baptista, who had questioned Paul.

Paul contended in court that Baptista had called her a "damn nigger" and had threatened to have her sent to camp for juveniles, said Renfrew. Baptista in court denied making either statement, Martin said.

Martin said that Paul was strip-searched because police had been told the robbers were armed with .25-caliber pistols or derringers that easily could have been hidden on a person's body. He said that the department would continue to strip-search felony suspects.

The chief said that the department has been sued several times during his seven-year tenure as police chief but that this case "hurts" because it is the first judgment that went against the city.

City Manager Robert (Bud) Ovrom said that the city does not have insurance to cover the jury award and that the money would have to come from the city treasury.

"I think this is one of those unfortunate situations where I believe our officers did absolutely nothing wrong, but it also turned out that the girl did nothing wrong," Ovrom said.

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