PERSPECTIVE ON THE POLICE : Abetting Beatings by Those in Blue : Congress may cap punitive awards, thus lowering incentives for agencies to root out rogue cops.

Paul Hoffman, a Santa Monica attorney, is a board member of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and served as ACLU legal director from 1984 to 1994

From the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department to the revelations of racism and manufacturing of evidence on LAPD Det. Mark Furhman's tapes, reminders abound of why police officers should be held to answer for misconduct.

It is doubly difficult, then, to understand how a bill is advancing through Congress that ought to be called the "rogue cops protection act of 1995."

More than that, its sponsor is Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) and its principal advocate has been Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block.

In brazen doublespeak, Moorhead has titled his bill the "Law Enforcement Officers Civil Liability Act of 1995." This legislation, which has already gone through hearings in a House subcommittee, would:

* Establish such a high standard of proof for awarding punitive damages against police officers who engage in brutality that it would be nearly impossible for juries to impose such damages-- often the only way of penalizing rogue police departments and forcing reforms.

* Limit punitive damages for police abuse victims to $10,000, regardless of the heinousness of the brutality. This limit would strip away any financial incentives to reform.

* Set strict limits on compensation for lawyers who win police misconduct cases, which are often extremely complex and require months or years of work and thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs, without any limit on the amount police departments may spend to defend such cases.

A recent highly publicized jury verdict against Torrance police officers perfectly illustrates the pernicious effects of Moorhead's rogue cop protection bill. In that case, three young Latino men won a $129,000 jury verdict against officers for stopping and abusing them without justification.

In the case of one victim, the abuse involved officers squeezing his testicles. The men had done nothing wrong. The jury believed that they were stopped because of the color of their skin.

Fully $120,000 of the jury award was in punitive damages, correctly recognizing that, although the victims were fortunate enough not to have suffered permanent injury, the police misconduct was so severe that the department needed an unmistakable message.

The jury spoke loudly, saying that in a civilized society, abuse of this kind is intolerable. As a result, the victims of police abuse were compensated and their lawyers received fair payment for hundreds of hours of work.

The Moorhead-Block effort would change all this. Under existing law, a jury may award punitive damages if police officers intentionally violate constitutional rights. This new legislation would require that an officer be proved to have intended to inflict "serious injury" beforehand.

The inevitable result will be that beatings, evidence tampering, racially discriminatory arrests and other forms of police abuse will increase-- because this bill eliminates a major incentive for departments to weed out rogue cops.

The bill does not stop there. Even if a victim met all of the new proof requirements, the most he or she could recover in punitive damages would be $10,000, a sum so inconsequential that police departments would consider such payments as an acceptable cost of doing business as usual.

In the Torrance case, punitive damages would have been barred or limited to $10,000, The attorneys would have been limited to $6,000 in fees, an amount below minimum wage for their time.

Block has argued that the bill is necessary because police officers live in fear of losing their homes if they are sued successfully. Curiously, there is no record of any such case. The reason: Departments always pay the judgments.

It has long been national policy to encourage ordinary people without financial means to seek legal redress for governmental misconduct. These cases must be taken by attorneys who understand that their clients can't afford to pay them. For decades, the law has permitted recovery of "reasonable" attorney fees in such cases--unless this bill becomes law.

It may currently be fashionable to advocate for the limitation of attorney fees, but this view ignores the fact that most awards in police abuse cases are modest in view of the time and financial investment a lawyer must make for his or her clients. Judges already have the power to prevent the awarding of "unreasonable" attorney fees. There is no need for the arbitrary limits imposed by this bill.

The only purpose of the Moorhead bill is to make it impossible for most victims of police abuse to bring civil rights lawsuits against the officers who mistreated them. This may be what rogue cops want, but it does not serve the interests of justice or police accountability in this or any other community.

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