A Van Nuys teen-ager who was questioned by detectives about the ambush shooting death of a Grant High School teacher filed a $10-million lawsuit Wednesday against the City of Los Angeles, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and several officers, alleging that he was falsely arrested.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by Hai Waknine, 16, charges that detectives investigating the slaying Friday of teacher Hal Arthur, 60, violated Waknine’s rights when they questioned him at Van Nuys police station that afternoon without proper cause or evidence that he was involved in the murder.
The lawsuit was filed by the firm of Yagman & Yagman, which has often sued law enforcement agencies over allegations of civil rights abuses. It alleges that police denied Waknine his right to speak with an attorney during the six hours he was held by authorities.
Police declined to comment on the lawsuit but earlier stressed that Waknine was not a suspect, had not been arrested when questioned and had willingly spoken with detectives.
Arthur was shot to death in front of his home at 6 a.m. Friday as he prepared to get into his car to go to work. Police have made no arrests and said Wednesday that there were no suspects in the case.
Detectives said they focused on Waknine, a former Grant student who was transferred last month after a campus fight, because several students had given his name and said he was known to possess weapons and possibly had a grudge against Arthur.
Waknine was taken into custody at his home about 2:30 p.m. Friday and released about six hours later after investigators determined that he was not connected with the killing.
The lawsuit says the alleged improper arrest of Waknine is part of an “LAPD policy and custom of making precipitous arrests in high-profile cases to make it appear to the public that LAPD is capable of solving crimes when, in fact, LAPD is a third-rate police organization that is ineffective in combating crime in general and relies more on media hype than on good, hard police work.”
Waknine’s attorney, Marion R. Yagman, declined comment. Police, Waknine and his parents also declined comment.
Though exact details of what happened when Waknine went with police were not clear Wednesday, it appears that the lawsuit may hinge on what procedures police used when taking him into custody.
Probable Cause Examined
Prof. Martin Levine, an expert on criminal procedure at the USC Law Center who was told the public facts of the case, said that when police acted on the information from other students, they apparently had probable cause to arrest and question Waknine.
“If reliable informants say a person has a motive and opportunity, either that is probable cause or close to it,” Levine said. “If they had probable cause they were entitled to arrest him. If they did not, they were entitled to speak to him. Police had to investigate the information.”
Levine said police must explain Constitutional rights, including the right to an attorney, to anyone arrested for a crime but are not required to do so with a person who voluntarily allows himself to be questioned. However, he noted, the LAPD and police departments across the country usually follow procedures in which any person formally questioned is advised of his rights.
The lawsuit was filed by a firm that has clashed often with police agencies. Marion R. Yagman’s law partner and husband, Stephen Yagman, has filed more abuse lawsuits against police than any other attorney in California. In December, he won an unprecedented $170,000 punitive damage award against Gates in the case of a family whose home had been virtually demolished during an LAPD raid.
Among the police officers named as a defendant in Waknine’s lawsuit is Detective Mel Arnold, with whom Stephen Yagman has clashed on an unrelated lawsuit involving another unsolved Van Nuys murder.
In that case, Stephen Yagman’s client is suing a sheriff’s deputy, charging that he was responsible for the murder of a young woman and claiming that the investigation headed by Arnold has covered up the deputy’s involvement. The deputy, Arnold and the LAPD have repeatedly denied the suit’s claims.
Stephen Yagman is on a six-month suspension from law practice by the California Supreme Court, which upheld the State Bar’s findings that he had been “hostile, forceful and aggressive” with his own clients.