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Man Wins $45,000 in Suit Over Backward Cap

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It just might be his lucky hat.

If nothing else, the Pittsburgh Steelers cap--turned around backward--won Zurick Sellers $30,000 from the county, though the path toward that victory included an arrest and prosecution by the county district attorney’s office.

The 23-year-old Palmdale resident won the money this week after county attorneys decided to settle his federal lawsuit rather than face a jury trial in which the constitutionality of a shopping mall’s “no backward hats” policy would have been questioned.

“Our argument is that you can’t prevent someone from coming into a mall because they are wearing their hat backwards,” said Sellers’ attorney Paul Hoffman. “We also believe he was singled out because he was black and lots of white kids who wore their hats backwards weren’t bothered.”

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The case has embarrassed the Antelope Valley Mall--where it occurred--as well as the district attorney’s office, which filed charges against Sellers, and the county counsel’s office, which eventually settled the lawsuit.

Commented Assistant County Counsel S. Robert Ambrose: “We’re sorry it went as far as it did.”

Sellers’ unusual trip through the justice system began Aug. 18, 1995, when he drove to the Antelope Valley Mall in Palmdale to buy a pair of shoes.

Unaware of a dress code meant to discourage gang members from coming to the mall, Sellers wore his hat backward, his attorney said.

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According to a county report, a sheriff’s deputy patrolling the mall spotted Sellers and objected to his fashion statement. When Sellers declined to turn his cap so the bill was facing forward, or to leave the mall, the deputy placed him in handcuffs, according to the report.

Sellers was taken to a sheriff’s substation, and later, was arraigned, sat through two pretrial hearings and had a court date set for a jury trial, according to a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.

The charges: trespassing with intent to interfere, and obstructing or intimidating business operators or customers.

The charges were dismissed in March 1996.

Sellers and his attorney, however, were not satisfied and sued the mall and the county in U.S. District Court alleging discrimination. The county was held liable because the sheriff’s deputy was enforcing the mall rule.

Bolstering their case, said Hoffman, was a little detective work done by Sellers’ father, who went to the mall and shot video footage showing white people wearing their caps backward without being disturbed.

“The whole thing is incredibly foolish,” said Hoffman. “Having a young black man treated like this shows why there shouldn’t be a rule like this in the first place.”

As part of the settlement approved Monday by the county Claims Board, the Sheriff’s Department has agreed not to enforce the mall’s policy on hats.

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The county’s legal opinion stated: “A citizen has the 1st Amendment right to freedom of expression. Although there are limits, areas open to the public afford the greatest protection to free speech and free expression. A private property owner can restrict expression . . . but in and of itself, wearing a cap backwards should not be regulated.”

The Antelope Valley Mall will pay Sellers an additional $15,000.

The mall’s manager could not be reached for comment Thursday. An employee said she did not know whether the mall still banned the backward wearing of hats.


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