Jury Finds Gates Violated Rights in Gun Permit Suit : Sheriff: Ending 11-year case, a federal jury awards $246,000 to 2 private investigators, saying he acted with ‘reckless disregard’ for Constitution in favoring friends.
Finding that Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates acted with “reckless disregard” for the U.S. Constitution, a federal jury on Friday awarded $246,000 to two private investigators who charged that Gates improperly issued concealed-weapon permits to his cronies and political supporters.
The jury’s conclusion opened Gates up to the possibility of paying at least $500,000 in punitive damages--money that could come out of his own pocket--for violating the civil rights of Frank Ritter and his brother Ty, both of Orange County. It was the strongest statement a jury has made in a decade of lawsuits alleging that Gates harassed his political opponents and used a double standard for granting gun permits.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Oct. 31, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 31, 1990 Orange County Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Sheriff verdict--A headline on a Sept. 29 story about a verdict in a case involving Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates mischaracterized the jury’s findings. The headline said in part that Gates “acted with ‘reckless disregard’ for the Constitution in favoring friends.” In fact, jurors made no specific reference in their findings to any favoritism toward Gates’ friends.
A court hearing to delve into Gates’ personal finances and to determine how much the sheriff should pay will be held before the same jury on Wednesday in U.S. District Court. In addition, the county is liable for the Ritters’ legal bill, which could be as high as $200,000.
“I feel like David, and Goliath has just fallen to his knees,” Ty Ritter said immediately after the decision. “There are heads of law enforcement agencies that will hand out badges and other things as tokens of friendship, but Gates gives out gun permits and that makes him a dangerous man.”
The $246,000 award was for compensatory damages based on the amount of money the Ritters estimated they lost in bodyguarding contracts because they did not have concealed-weapons permits. The decision came after a three-week trial before U.S. District Judge William P. Gray, who has presided over a major lawsuit dealing with overcrowded conditions in the Orange County Main Jail in Santa Ana.
“Obviously, we are disappointed that the jury did not agree with us,” Gates said in a one-page prepared statement. “We have tried to the best of our ability to treat everyone fairly. We have made every effort not to discriminate against anyone. Above all, we’ve done what we felt was best for the county of Orange.”
The Ritters were the remaining plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit originally filed in June, 1979, by Preston Guillory, 45, a former private investigator from Santa Ana. The brothers joined the lawsuit in 1981 after they were denied a gun permit for a sixth time, even though they said they needed guns to deal with the dangers of bodyguard work.
Their case alleged that Gates violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause, which requires government officials to treat citizens equally when they dispense a benefit to the public.
Armed with the sheriff’s own files, the Ritters alleged that Gates gave gun permits to hundreds of his political backers, business associates and other professionals whom he wanted to cultivate as supporters.
Their attorney, Meir J. Westreich, described the elite circle of concealed-weapon permit-holders as “The Brad Gates Gun Club” who were not required to meet state standards. Those same standards that were ignored in those cases were applied to the Ritters and other applicants, the plaintiffs argued.
The records purportedly showed that Gates awarded permits to 101 contributors who gave more than $120,000 to his reelection coffers. The records also revealed that gun permits were issued to 37 members of the prestigious Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach, which contributed $11,000 to his campaigns.
In another sample of gun permits, notes in the files highlighted applicants who either knew Gates, former Sheriff James Musick or actor John Wayne, a friend and longtime supporter of Gates.
Other documents introduced during the trial indicated that several permits were issued by the sheriff’s secretary and that certain major campaign contributors did not have to fill out applications or go through the usual 60- to 90-day review process.
Evidence further indicated that Gates issued permits to physically unstable people and to an elderly Santa Ana man who said in his application that he needed a concealed weapon to protect himself from ethnic minorities “in front of his house,” an application that included a racial slur.
Westreich also produced a sworn statement in which Gates and his former attorney, James Slack, said they felt the sheriff did not have to comply with the equal protection clause in issuing gun permits.
Gates’ lawyer, Eric L. Dobberteen, contended that the Ritters’ gun permit application was impartially reviewed by deputies who concluded that they had not been “forthright” about why they needed gun permits.
Suggesting that the Ritters’ had lied about the adverse effect the denial had on their bodyguard business, Dobberteen produced a statement in which the Ritters said their business was a success.
On the witness stand, Gates also defended his policies as fair and impartial although Westreich repeatedly confronted him with gun permits issued to supporters and people who had done favors for his department.
In his final argument, Westreich called the sheriff “arrogant” for not providing documentary evidence and chided Gates for denying for two years that the department had a written policy that discriminated against private investigators.
“I feel like a tremendous burden has been lifted off of us,” said Frank Ritter, who owns Backtrack Unlimited, a private investigation firm in Huntington Beach. “We have been vindicated. . . . Orange County is a Gestapo county run by Brad Gates and it has got to stop.”
In his statement, Gates said the jury apparently believed that his department should have been more liberal in distributing concealed weapons permits to private investigators, which are regulated by the state. He said he would like the state to assume responsibilities for all gun permits to keep local agencies from “getting caught in the middle.”
“Sheriff Gates and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department have a longstanding policy of limiting the number of concealed-weapons permits we issue because we have felt that doing so is in the best interests and for the safety of our community,” the statement released Friday evening said.
But a 1984 Sheriff’s Department letter to a gun permit holder presented in the Ritter case stated that the department actually was scaling back gun permits because of court and public scrutiny.
Gates said in his statement that he was “extremely gratified” that the jury in this case concluded that he did not engage in political favoritism.
Friday’s verdict is the third time that the county has had to pay money in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by the Sheriff’s Department. To date, settlements and jury awards alone total almost $1.3 million, while the county has spent another $1 million to defend Gates.
“So you have $2 million to $2.5 million on three cases in which Sheriff Gates says he is just doing his job as a county sheriff,” Westreich said. “It’s an insult to people in the county.”
In 1987, the county paid $375,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by former Orange County Municipal Judge Bobby D. Youngblood, an outspoken opponent of Gates who claimed he was subjected to unwarranted criminal investigations for years.
The gun permit controversy began in 1976 when Guillory was denied a concealed weapons permit and filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court. A judge ruled in 1978 that the Sheriff’s Department unfairly discriminated against private investigators and ordered Gates to reconsider Guillory’s application.
The Sheriff’s Department turned Guillory down again for lack of good moral character, a finding Guillory contended was based on spurious information and for minor incidents he was involved in, such as painting without a contractor’s license.
Guillory then sued in federal court, but the case was dismissed by U.S. District Judge David Williams halfway through a jury trial in 1981 for lack of evidence. Jurors, however, told the news media that they thought the system was unfair, and they questioned Gates’ credibility.
Three years later, a federal appeals court reinstated the lawsuit and ruled that Williams erred by not letting the jury decide that case. Justices also held that Williams should have granted Guillory complete access to all gun permit records at the Sheriff’s Department.
In March, Guillory, a former Santa Ana private investigator, received $475,000 to end his involvement in the Ritter case and another separate lawsuit alleging that sheriff’s deputies fabricated a criminal case against him in 1984 because he worked for Youngblood.
After Guillory’s settlement and considerable legal maneuvering, the Ritters, who did not agree to settle, headed for trial.
“I think that in 1978 Gates was told by a state court that he discriminated against private investigators and Gates said he wasn’t going to obey that ruling,” Westreich said. “Now I am pleased as hell that there is a price to pay for violating people’s constitutional rights. He has been able to do it for 12 years. It was time he was brought to the bar of justice.”
Also Friday, the jury exonerated the city of Santa Ana and its retired police chief, Raymond C. Davis. The Ritters contended that Davis violated their civil rights by relinquishing Santa Ana’s responsibility for issuing gun permits to the Sheriff’s Department.
Staff writer Nancy Wride contributed to this report.
‘TEFLON BADGE’: Officials are reluctant to criticize the sheriff. A24
THE SHERIFF IN COURT
Friday’s decision brings to at least $1,286,000 the amount that Orange County has paid for out-of-court settlements and court-awarded damages stemming from a tangle of lawsuits against Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates in the past four years. County officials have estimated that defending the sheriff has cost another $1 million.
April, 1987: Plaintiff: BOBBY D. YOUNGBLOOD, a former Orange County Municipal judge
Youngblood, a onetime candidate for sheriff, alleged that he had been subjected to harassment because of his outspoken criticism of Gates. The case was settled shortly after Gates’ attorneys, responding to a subpoena from attorneys in the Youngblood suit, inadvertently surrendered a 1981 tape recording made by sheriff’s investigators of lectures by Rancho Santiago College instructor George P. Wright, who had criticized Gates.
Resolution: County paid $375,000 in out-of-court settlement. Two private investigators shared the award.
March, 1989: Plaintiff: PRESTON GUILLORY, Santa Ana private investigator
Guillory alleged that Gates had improperly investigated him in 1984, after Guillory served a subpoena on a Sheriff’s Department confidential informant.
Resolution: Federal jury awarded Guillory $189,894. Two months later, a federal appeals judge refused to overturn the jury verdict or order a new trial. February, 1990: Plaintiff: GUILLORY, TY RITTER and FRANK RITTER, private investigators
In addition to the earlier suit, Guillory joined with the Ritter brothers in alleging that Gates’ procedure on awarding gun permits was so fraught with cronyism that it violated constitutional guarantees of due process.
Resolution: County paid Guillory and his attorneys $475,000 to settle. That sum includes the $189,894 jury decision and $185,000 in legal fees. Ritter brothers vowed to continue their suit despite Guillory’s settlement. September, 1990: Plaintiffs: TY and FRANK RITTER, private investigators
Continuing their fight against the sheriff’s gun permit policy, the Ritter brothers argued that the process was in reckless disregard of the U.S. Constitution.
Resolution: U.S. District Court jury found for the Ritters, ordering Gates to pay $260,000 in compensatory damages. The Ritters said they will also seek $500,000 in punitive damages.
Source: Los Angeles Times files