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Judge Voids Bid to Hold Council Members Liable

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge Monday threw out most of a lawsuit which sought to force Los Angeles City Council members to pay police brutality damages out of their own pockets, but added a warning that it appears there is “something wrong with the process” by which the city pays police misconduct judgments.

In a major victory for the city, U.S. District Court Judge J. Spencer Letts dismissed key elements of the case, specifically including the attempt to collect damages from council members personally for financially protecting police officers who shot four robbers in Sunland in 1990, killing three.

Letts also released the city government from any liability in the current lawsuit involving the shooting, leaving only former Police Chief Daryl Gates and nine officers as defendants.

The same shooting is now the subject of an investigation by a federal grand jury, racing to meet a Feb. 12 statute of limitations deadline, into whether the officers should be charged with violating the robbers’ civil rights.

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Lawyers for the city and the 10 council members named as defendants hailed Letts’ ruling as an affirmation of “qualified immunity,” the legal principal that shields lawmakers from being held responsible in civil lawsuits for their official actions.

“This is a very important decision,” said Skip Miller, a private lawyer who was hired by the council to fight this case.

“It is a groundbreaking decision . . . which will be heard loud and clear in City Hall and in government.”

The judge sided with Miller’s argument that the council members properly considered the facts of the Sunland case and then made good faith decisions to use city funds to pay judgments imposed on the police officers. This was within the council’s authority under a state law specifically authorizing city governments to make such payments for municipal employees sued over actions they took on the job, he ruled.

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Letts said he did not have enough factual information in the case to demonstrate that anyone in City Hall acted improperly.

He warned, however, that the issue of shielding police officers from court judgments for misconduct will probably continue to haunt the city.

“Sooner or later,” Letts said, “someone has to begin to look and to wonder about the effect of never having any of these officers pay.”

A history of such cases shows the council always went along with the recommendations of the Police Department and the city attorney, he said. Just as the Christopher Commission found fault with the LAPD’s system of screening citizens complaints, Letts continued, he had to conclude that the city’s process of paying punitive damages was also flawed.

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“In this case, that decision may have been sound. But eventually someone is going to question it and the inference can be drawn that there’s something wrong with the process.”

The case at hand alleged that the city had fostered a policy of police brutality by repeatedly indemnifying officers sued for excessive force.

It was brought in the name of Johanna Trevino, now 4, who had not yet been born when her father and two other robbers were killed in February, 1990, as they fled a McDonald’s restaurant in Sunland and were shot by members of the Police Department’s elite Special Investigations Section.

Police said the fleeing robbers pointed pistols at them. The weapons, it was discovered later, were actually air guns.

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Critics alleged that the officers had followed the men, believing they were going to commit a crime, and allowed them to go through with the robbery so they could be caught in the act.

Alleging that the slain men had been ambushed and murdered by police, other surviving relatives filed a federal suit and in 1992 won a jury verdict for slightly more than $44,000 in punitive damages.

In a rare gesture, the jury specifically asked that Gates and the officers pay the money out of their own pockets instead of having taxpayers foot the bill, as is common in such cases.

But the City Council voted to cover the costs anyway and attorney Stephen Yagman, who specializes in police misconduct cases, sued again, this time on behalf of the Trevino girl. This suit claimed that by repeatedly indemnifying officers in such cases, the council had encouraged wrongful police shootings, and had deprived Johanna of her father.

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In the 2 1/2 years since, the complicated case has wended its way from Los Angeles federal court all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and back as city lawyers have sought to have it dismissed. All along, they argued that council members could not be sued for their official actions.

In what appeared to be a key victory for Yagman, a federal appeals court held that the council members could be considered personally liable for some actions, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the city’s appeal.

It was closely watched by officials concerned about the potential for personal liability, drawing City Atty. James Hahn to one hearing and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky--a former council member and a defendant--to Monday’s proceeding.

On Monday, Letts heard two motions for summary judgment brought by the defense and granted both of them.

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In the first motion, city lawyers argued that the council members should be released from personal liability because they had acted in good faith and complied with a state law that authorized them to pay punitive damages awarded against municipal employees.

Rather than “rubber-stamping” the payments, as Yagman contended, the council discussed the matter at length during two closed sessions and asked detailed questions about the shooting, Miller said.

Letts said he had no criticism of the council’s performance, and noted that members had relied largely on information from the city attorney’s office and Police Department in deciding how to vote.

In the second motion, city lawyers denied the existence of a policy under which the city always indemnifies police officers for court-awarded damages, citing case histories as proof.

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In the past decade, they contended, the city has paid punitive damages in only 11 of 49 excessive-force cases. It settled 18 cases out of court, and refused to represent the officers named in another 20 suits.

But the judge criticized that analysis, saying that in his view the city had actually paid damages in 29 cases, because the 18 settlements had also freed the individual officers from financial penalties.


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