Suit to Stop Gun Carrying Off-Duty Fails

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles County judge Thursday dismissed a lawsuit demanding that sheriff's deputies be banned from carrying their guns off-duty while consuming alcohol.

Saying the issue would be best resolved by state lawmakers, Superior Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper concluded that she cannot force the Los Angles County Sheriff's Department to restrict sworn personnel from arming themselves when they are not at work.

"When I get to be queen of the world and I get to adopt all the rules . . . I would like to issue an order that says to the sheriff, 'You've got to do something about this problem,' " Cooper said. "I don't believe the law authorizes me to do that."

Under California's statutes, peace officers are allowed to carry their weapons at all times so they can be prepared at a moment's notice to take police action. On occasion, however, that has led to problems.

Since 1990, at least 17 Los Angeles County deputies have been investigated for using their weapons off-duty after consuming alcohol, according to a review of internal sheriff's reports.

Although the problem is not unique to the Sheriff's Department, civil rights attorney Carol Watson and her client, Gerald Huffman, had hoped that by targeting the countywide agency, other law enforcement departments would be compelled to review their off-duty gun policies.

Huffman--whose son was killed by an intoxicated off-duty deputy outside a Rowland Heights bar in 1994--said he is prepared to take the fight to the Legislature.

"We're not going to give up hope," Huffman said. "It's just a matter of time."

Said Watson: "I'm really hopeful the Legislature will see the good sense in this. . . . Guns and alcohol are a deadly combination. I don't think anything could be more obvious."

In a prepared statement, sheriff's officials said the department is "evaluating its options and seeking further legal advice."

For the most part, officials said, deputies act responsibly when carrying their guns off-duty. On any given day, an estimated 8,000 sworn personnel are armed when they are off work; about 80 have been investigated for drawing or firing their weapons off-duty between 1987 and 1996, according to department records.

Senior Deputy County Counsel Lester J. Tolnai, who represented the department in court Thursday, praised the judge for leaving the matter to state lawmakers.

"We'll let the Legislature unravel it because it is a very complex scheme," Tolnai said.

In October, Huffman and his family won a $750,000 civil judgment in U.S. District Court in a wrongful death case against the Sheriff's Department. On Monday, a federal judge ordered the county to pay Watson $134,000 in attorney's fees for representing the Huffman family in the case. She was paid $275 an hour for her work.

The deputy--who remains on the force--was not criminally charged in the incident because the district attorney's office found there was not enough evidence to prosecute.

Although the county argued that Deputy Thomas Kirsch was not acting "under the color" of law when he shot John Huffman in August 1994, the jury found that the Sheriff's Department should be held liable because it encourages its deputies to carry their weapons off-duty.

Cooper said she believes Watson brought up some "serious and substantial policy issues" in her lawsuit.

"Is there a genuine threat to public safety posed by the ability of off-duty officers to carry concealed weapons while consuming alcohol?" the judge asked. "Questions of this nature are best resolved in the public forum of a Senate or Assembly hearing room, not the limited confines of a court."

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