Punitive Award Against Gates Is Overturned : Ruling: But the federal appeals court’s decision in a brutality case stemming from a police raid on the Eastside means the chief could be ordered to pay larger damages.
A federal appeals court Friday overturned a punitive damages award of $170,000 against Police Chief Daryl F. Gates in a technical ruling that ironically creates the possibility of an even larger damage award against the chief.
The U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that Gates was entitled to a new trial stemming from a 1986 raid at an Eastside home by police officers who were looking for a weapon allegedly used in a gang killing. The officers ransacked the house and broke the nose of the owner, Jessie Larez.
However, the three-judge panel said that inflammatory statements made by Gates about the Larez family to reporters could be used in the retrial.
In a unanimous decision, the appellate court upheld a jury’s $90,000 damage award against six officers for conducting an unreasonable search and using excessive force in the raid.
In another setback for Gates and the Police Department, the court rejected arguments by the Los Angeles city attorney’s office that would have imposed broad limitations on punitive damage awards in excessive force cases.
After the initial verdict against the officers in October, 1988, the chief told reporters outside court that given the circumstances in the case, Larez was “probably lucky” to have suffered only a broken nose.
He also said the jury showed sympathy for the family because they were “all cleaned up” for the trial. “They don’t know their background, that there is a gang member on parole.” The chief added, “I tell my officers to do something,” about gangs “and we do something and they give them $90,000.”
The appeals court ruled that Gates was entitled to a new trial because U. S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi erred by admitting newspaper accounts of the chief’s comments without giving his attorney the opportunity to question reporters to see if Gates had been quoted accurately.
However, the appeals court said that Gates’ statements, which clearly had an impact on the verdict, could be used at a retrial.
“Gates’ actual out-of-court statements pose no admissibility problem. The statements clearly are relevant. They are probative of the central issues in the cases--Gates’ recklessness and callous indifference, and customs and policies of the LAPD,” said Appeals Court Judge Robert Boochever. Judges Cynthia Holcomb Hall and Pamela Rymer joined in the opinion.
Assistant City Atty. Richard Helgeson, who represented Gates and the other officers on appeal, said he was “encouraged by the fact that the decision was reversed as to the chief.” He said Gates would be allowed to explain his statements at a retrial.
However, Helgeson acknowledged that the broad sweep of the opinion on the punitive damages issue went against the Police Department. The department would have no comment until it had time to study the decision, a spokesman said.
At the time of the verdict in December, 1988, legal experts said it was the first time a major city police chief had been held personally liable and ordered to pay punitive damages for actions deemed to have violated the constitutional rights of citizens.
Civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman, who represented the Larez family, hailed the ruling even though the punitive damages award was overturned.
“This is the most important civil rights case I’ve ever handled and I couldn’t be more delighted by what the court did,” Yagman said. “It’s the equivalent of saying to someone, ‘You don’t get what you want, but you get a chance to get a lot more.’ ”
Yagman said he looked forward to retrying the case in the wake of the March 3 beating of motorist Rodney G. King and the ensuing Christopher Commission report, which said the Police Department condoned excessive force and racism.
The raid occurred on June 13, 1986, when six members of the Police Department’s anti-gang unit, with a search warrant, conducted a “crisis entry” into the Larez home. They broke the back windows of the house to create a diversion and then stormed through the front door.
One of Larez’s sons, Edward, was suspected of being a gang member and officers said they believed a weapon used in a gang murder might be found at the house.
“Upon entering the Larez home, the officers physically and verbally mistreated members of the family,” the judges wrote in their opinion. “They hurled Jessie (the father) across the room, grabbed him by the hair, forced him to lie face down on the floor where one of the officers held Jessie down with his knee on Jessie’s neck and handcuffed him.”
The judges added that police officers “kicked him and smashed his face into the floor” and then “laughed and sneered” at him. “They told him they had him where they wanted him.”
In addition to the broken nose, Larez’s knees required arthroscopic surgery, and neck surgery was recommended to alleviate the headaches that have persisted since the incident, the judges wrote.
Larez’s daughter, Diane, also was roughed up, the judges wrote. Dishes, pots and ceramic statues were destroyed.
Before filing their lawsuit, the family formally complained to the Police Department that excessive force had been used. But the officers’ supervisors concluded that the raid had been properly conducted and dismissed the complaint.
The appeals court decision noted that James Fyfe, a former New York police official who is now a professor at American University in Washington, testified as an expert witness “that had he been in Chief Gates’ shoes, he would have disciplined the individual officers and would have established new procedures for averting the recurrence of similar excesses. . . . Yet neither step was taken by Gates.”
The judges also noted other testimony by Fyfe that it was “almost impossible for a police officer to suffer discipline as a result of a complaint lodged by a citizen,” and added that it is as if “something has to be done on film for the department to buy the citizen’s story.”
And the judges, in a highly unusual move, quoted officers using obscene language during the raid, such as Officer William Holcomb telling Jessie Larez: “I could blow your (obscenity) head off right here and nobody can prove you did not try to do something.”