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Santa Ana Settles in Homeless Arrest Case : Lawsuit: Council approves an agreement to give $400,000 to 28 people rounded up in a sweep last year at the Civic Center.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Checks totaling about $400,000 will be given to 28 homeless people who were arrested during a sweep last summer at the Civic Center in a settlement approved by the City Council on Monday night.

With only one individual case still pending, the group settlement signals the end of an incident that proved to be politically embarrassing and costly for the city.

However, the City Council approval was not unanimous. Councilmen John Acosta and Richards L. Norton, who voted against it in a 5-2 vote, said the settlement was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“I don’t believe that these individuals . . . or bums or whatever you want to call them are worthy of a nickel,” Acosta said. The audience applauded.

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Norton added that the settlement would be “just the tip of the iceberg, and in my opinion we will find ourselves being sued many, many times over.”

In the lawsuit filed last month, the homeless people said their civil rights were violated when they and more than 30 others were rounded up for offenses ranging from littering to jaywalking. They were taken to Santa Ana Stadium, where numbers were written on their forearms in red ink. They were held for several hours before being released.

“We are very happy to put this whole incident behind us, and we hope we have all learned from it,” said Bob Cohen, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Orange County.

Jennifer J. King, former president of the Orange County Bar Assn. and one of several lawyers who donated their services to the plaintiffs in the case, said: “Hopefully, the government and the police have learned just because you are poor and homeless does not mean you are less entitled to rights we all enjoy as citizens of the United States.”

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As part of the settlement, 26 plaintiffs--ranging in ages from the mid-20s to mid-60s--each will receive $13,000, and two others will receive $26,000 each because they were “treated roughly enough that they required medical attention,” King said.

One of the residents included in the lawsuit, Clemente Ruiz, died last week after being shot on the street by an unknown attacker, Cohen said, but his share of the settlement will be turned over to relatives.

Attorney Crystal Sims said another plaintiff settled her portion of the case for $5,000 in early August because she is dying of cancer and did not want to face what might have been a long legal battle.

Although the council majority did not comment Monday night, City Atty. Edward J. Cooper said that if the city did not settle, the lawsuit could cost about $450,000, excluding attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs should they win the case. He also said the attorneys for the indigents threatened to take depositions of 20 police officers for each plaintiff in the case, resulting in a costly and burdensome process.

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Police Chief Paul M. Walters said of the settlement: “I think it’s a good decision for the city. The cost of just defending the case would have cost more than the cost to settle. It’s unfortunate, but a good decision.”

The raid last summer was not the first incident that ended up in court.

Earlier this year, the council agreed to pay $12,500 to a 32-year-old homeless woman who was injured when she was arrested by a Santa Ana police officer in 1989.

In another case, the council paid $50,000 to 14 homeless people who sued the city in 1988 after their bedrolls and other personal property were confiscated and discarded by park employees.

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After the sweep in August, 1990, some of the county’s best lawyers came to the defense of the homeless.

In what turned into a three-phased fight, the homeless last fall first won an injunction to prevent the city from targeting the homeless again. Then in a Municipal Court case to hear the charges brought against the transients--including a charge against one man for pulling leaves off a tree--the judge criticized the police tactics and called the sweep discriminatory and illegal.

The last hurdle was the lawsuit settled Monday.

A related case still pending involves a homeless immigrant who was sent back to Mexico after the raid, even though he is a legal resident.

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Although more than 60 people were arrested, lawyers said many have disappeared or returned to Mexico.

But advocates for the homeless said city officials already have shown a cooperative spirit on issues involving the city’s homeless population.

“In the future, there will be closer cooperation regarding the problems of the homeless,” Cohen said.


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