A federal jury delivered a $189,894 verdict against Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates on Wednesday, awarding the money to a political rival who said Gates had violated his civil rights by using sheriff’s investigators to harass him.
It was the first time a jury had a say in the decade-long controversy over whether Gates has misused his police powers. In 1987, Orange County settled a related federal suit against Gates for $375,000, but denied that Gates had done anything wrong.
Two more related suits against Gates are pending in U.S. District Court.
Wednesday’s judgment was against Gates, Orange County and Richard Wilder, one of Gates’ undercover informants. The city of Anaheim and some Anaheim officials were also listed as defendants but were not held liable.
Gates, in a statement, said the verdict “does not make sense” and said he would appeal.
County Would Pay Award
If the award stands, it would be paid by the county. The adverse verdict means Orange County will also have to pay the opposition’s attorneys’ fees, estimated to be at least $100,000 to $200,000.
The award was earmarked as compensation to the plaintiff, private investigator Preston Guillory--$144,894 for actual losses, such as lost wages, and $45,000 for suffering.
Guillory’s attorneys had sought punitive damages as well, but the jury refused to grant any.
Despite that setback, Guillory said he may win punitive damages in a second federal lawsuit against the sheriff, which is expected to go to trial in the summer. That suit alleges that Gates issued concealed-weapon permits in exchange for campaign contributions and as rewards for friends.
Gates insisted that the Sheriff’s Department’s investigation of Guillory had been impartial and objective, and that the subsequent decision to put Guillory on trial had been made independently by prosecutors. Echoing his attorneys’ closing arguments in trial, Gates said such verdicts are “another reason why it is dangerous to be a police officer in these times.”
”. . . Law enforcement officers are not only threatened with violence on the street, but with increasing frequency they are being required, sometimes years later, to defend their day-to-day decisions from lawyers with 20/20 hindsight,” Gates said.
But he applauded the jury for denying punitive damages. He said the jury “apparently did not believe Mr. Guillory’s allegations of political motivations for his criminal prosecution. . . .”
Jury foreman Mell B. Nolley, a retired Marine Corps major from Laguna Niguel, declined Wednesday night to respond to Gates’ comments. He added, however, that the damages the jury did award “could be considered punitive damages,” according to instructions given by the trial judge, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Gadbois Jr.
“We took that into account,” Nolley said.
Asked about the credibility of witnesses, Nolley said some were disregarded as unbelievable but that “a few people, their comments were very sincere. We believed what they had to say.” He specified witnesses on behalf of Anaheim: Assistant City Atty. Mark A. Logan, former Police Chief Jimmie D. Kennedy and police Sgt. Gordon D. Blair.
Asked whether Gates, who testified during the trial, was perceived as sincere, Nolley said: “I really don’t have any comments along that line.”
One of Gates’ attorneys, Eric L. Dobberteen, minimized the significance of the verdict. He said the lack of punitive damages indicated that the jury rejected the notion that Gates had used his deputies to conduct a vendetta against his political enemies. He said that a $45,000 award for pain and suffering was “very low.”
But one of Guillory’s attorneys, Meir J. Westreich, said the fact that the jury awarded any money at all shows that they believe Gates either intentionally or recklessly violated Guillory’s civil rights. Finding Orange County liable as well shows that the jury believed such harassment was a longstanding pattern, he said.
The case is important, Westreich insisted, because for the first time a suit against Gates went all the way to trial and Gates “was held accountable for his actions” by a jury. “Unfortunately, the public has to pay. Maybe they won’t want to vote for him so much anymore,” he added.
Gates Faces Reelection
Gates, a prominent Orange County Republican and successful campaign fund-raiser, was first elected in 1974. Gates faces reelection again in 1990, but fellow Republicans say they doubt Wednesday’s judgment will hinder him.
The lawsuit centered on incidents in 1984, when Guillory was involved in two federal lawsuits against Gates.
Guillory had filed one suit himself after Gates twice refused to issue him a permit to carry a concealed weapon. He alleged that Gates abused his authority by issuing such permits in exchange for campaign contributions, and as rewards for his friends. That suit is still pending.
In the second suit, Guillory was acting as investigator for three of Gates’ election opponents, who alleged Gates had used his investigators and informants to spy on and harass them for political purposes. That suit was settled out of court in 1987, when Orange County paid $375,000 on behalf of Gates.
In the latter case, Guillory had been trying to serve court papers on a co-defendant, Richard Wilder, who was a free-lance undercover informant for the Sheriff’s Department.
Guillory eventually found Wilder at an Anaheim apartment complex in October, 1984, and served the papers at the same time Anaheim police arrested Wilder for a traffic warrant.
Wilder telephoned Gates’ intelligence unit to report his arrest and said Guillory had been wearing a concealed weapon at the time. Intelligence unit detectives, the group within the Sheriff’s Department that was alleged to have harassed Gates’ political opponents, then launched an investigation into Guillory’s conduct.
Their completed investigation eventually was passed to Anaheim authorities, who conducted a second investigation, and the city attorney subsequently filed charges alleging that Guillory illegally carried a concealed weapon and impersonated a law officer. Guillory was acquitted of all charges in December, 1985.
Gates’ attorneys argued that the Sheriff’s investigation had been impartial, logical and reasonable. In effect, they used Gates’ trial to retry Guillory, insisting that despite his acquittal, Guillory had committed the crimes of which he had been accused.
While Guillory’s attorneys attacked the credibility of the Sheriff’s investigation, trying to show that witnesses had been confused or had been pressured into giving damning testimony, they concentrated on the reasons the investigation was even begun.
They questioned why the sheriff, who was being sued by Guillory, had not immediately referred the case to Anaheim police. They argued that the reason is obvious. An impartial investigator would not have taken Wilder’s story seriously. But for the sheriff, they argued, Wilder’s story presented an opportunity to harass and discredit Guillory and perhaps cripple his lawsuit against the sheriff.
Guillory’s attorneys also introduced evidence in this trial in an effort to show that Gates’ harassment was part of a larger pattern. They referred to sworn statements from the previous lawsuit, the most damaging being denials by Gates and one of his intelligence investigators, Randall Blair, that there had been any spying on Gates’ election opponent George Wright.
After those denials, a surreptitious tape-recording of one of Wright’s college lectures was found at an intelligence investigator’s home. That earlier lawsuit was settled a week later. Gates subsequently testified that he thought his previous denial was true when he made it, and Blair, who conceded he had been present when the tape recording was made, said he had merely forgotten about it.