L.A. Settles Joe Morgan Suit for $796,000

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday put an end to one of the Police Department's most notorious excessive-force cases, agreeing to pay former baseball star Joe Morgan $796,000 to settle his claim that he was illegally detained and roughed up five years ago at Los Angeles International Airport.

The settlement includes $461,000 that Morgan was awarded by a federal court jury in 1991 and $335,000 in punitive damages the council agreed to pay to conclude the case.

"We are really trying to cut our losses, because this could be a couple more years in the courts and cost thousands of dollars more if we tried to appeal," said Richard M. Helgeson, the assistant city attorney who recommended the settlement.

The City Council is expected today to approve settlement of another excessive-force case--this one paying $220,000 in punitive damages to a family who claimed they were mistreated during an illegal search by Los Angeles police.

With the two payments, the city will have awarded more than $10 million this year to settle cases involving the Police Department. It appears that the payouts on behalf of the Police Department will not approach last year's record of $19.7 million in settlements and court judgments.

Morgan, a Hall of Fame second baseman who spent most of his career with the Cincinnati Reds, had argued that he was victimized by police because he is black. He could not be reached for comment, but his attorney said the case should cause officers to act with greater restraint.

"No matter how experienced the officer or how strongly he believes in himself, the rule of law must be controlling," attorney William A. Barnes said. "People can't be picked up on the basis of race."

The Morgan case arose during a 1988 Joint Narcotics Task Force campaign against drug trafficking at LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Los Angeles Police Detective Clay Searle and a federal Drug Enforcement Administration agent had just arrested a suspected drug courier and were looking for his accomplice when they spotted Morgan.

Searle and the DEA agent reported that, when Morgan saw them, he stopped suddenly and hurried away in the other direction. They said he turned combative when Searle tried to question him.

But Morgan, who retired from baseball in 1984 to become a television sports broadcaster and businessman, said that he tried to identify himself to Searle, only to be grabbed and slammed to the ground.

A jury in 1991 had awarded regular damages that now total $461,000, including interest and attorneys fees. A federal appellate court, however, had asked for a review of an additional $450,000 in punitive damages awarded by the jury.

A hearing on the punitive damages issue, set for next month in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, will be canceled because of the settlement. Morgan will receive about $361,000--less than half of the settlement--with the rest going to his attorneys and to cover court costs.

Searle could have been liable for the punitive damages himself, but the City Council action relieves him of that burden. An internal Police Department review has cleared the 20-year veteran detective of wrongdoing, saying he had probable cause to detain Morgan.

Barnes said the settlement sends a message that the Police Department should be more careful in its identification of purported drug dealers.

"The drug courier profile is so regularly abused by law enforcement officers," Barnes said. "The person stopped is always a person of color. . . . This puts a published opinion out there that this is not proper."

While city officials said the Morgan payment is considered large, the city has made several multimillion dollar payouts to settle police cases.

The second settlement stems from a 1986 raid on an Eastside home owned by Jessie Larez.

A jury assessed $90,000 in damages against the Police Department for making an unreasonable search and using excessive force, breaking Larez's nose. The jury also assessed $170,000 in punitive damages against then Chief Daryl F. Gates. Legal experts said that was the first time a big-city police chief had been ordered to pay punitive damages for police actions that violated a citizen's constitutional rights.

But a federal appellate court, in a technical ruling, threw out the punitive judgment against Gates. The settlement came as the question of punitive damages was to be retried in U.S. District Court.

The appellate court had said it would allow into evidence statements that Gates made to the press about the case. The chief had said Larez was "probably lucky" to have suffered only a broken nose and added that the jury had shown sympathy to the Larez family because they were "all cleaned up" for the trial.

Officers suspected that one of Larez's sons was a gang member and said they were looking for a weapon in the home.

Gates had said he welcomed a chance to explain his comments to reporters, and officials in the city attorney's office said they believed they might prevail in a new trial.

But Don Vincent, supervising deputy city attorney, said the chance of an even greater payout caused the city to settle the matter. The council put the $220,000 offer on the table last week and is expected to validate it today.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°