A Tarzana lawyer Friday filed an $11-million class-action lawsuit against the city of Simi Valley, claiming that police officers singled out motorcyclists for ticketing at a recent charitable event sponsored by the Hells Angels.
Attorney Allan B. Gelbard's suit--filed in U. S. District Court in Los Angeles--contends that police officers violated bikers' civil rights under federal and state law during a "poker ride" held at the Simi Valley Elks Lodge earlier this month.
The Sept. 7 charity event, sponsored by the San Fernando Valley chapter of the Hells Angels, attracted 1,500 motorcycle enthusiasts--from weekend warriors to leather-clad Angels. At or near the event, police arrested six people, wrote citations for 45 and verbally warned 27.
Simi Valley Police Chief Randy Adams has said his department only issued citations when people broke the law.
But some bikers sense something more nefarious. They see overzealous enforcement that has its roots in an incident earlier this summer when eight police officers--incensed that the Elks Lodge would host a Hells Angels event--returned their Officer of the Year awards to the lodge.
"I think the police subjected [motorcyclists] to harassment and intimidation, and that's what the lawsuit says," said Gelbard, a motorcyclist who was ticketed for making an illegal left turn at the event. He said he made no illegal left turn.
While he would not comment on the specifics of the case, Simi Valley City Atty. John Torrance said he didn't think that it would particularly impress the court.
"We've looked into his general contention and we don't think he has a case," Torrance said Friday, before he had received a copy of the suit. "But he's welcome to file a suit."
The suit claims that police conspired to violate the riders' civil rights and that the city of Simi Valley did not adequately supervise police during the event. The defendants include Adams, the five City Council members, the city manager and unnamed police officers.
So far, Gelbard is the only plaintiff listed on the suit, but he hopes that the court will certify a class, a legal procedure that allows other motorcyclists to sign on as plaintiffs. Many of the people who attended the poker ride--Gelbard included--were not Hells Angels members, he said.
Civil rights complaints against the city's Police Department are "nothing new," Torrance said.
"We very seldom get tagged in these cases," the city attorney said. "All it takes to file a civil rights lawsuit . . . is a lawyer and a filing fee. It takes proof to convince a judge or a jury. Oftentimes, there's a big, big difference between allegations and proof."
Councilman Bill Davis said he wasn't particularly worried about the suit. But he was surprised that the council was charged with inadequate oversight.
"I didn't realize my job was to watch every ticket [police officers] write," Davis said.
A former Simi Valley police chief himself, Councilman Paul Miller questioned the suit's merits.
"I don't think they're going to be able to prove harassment," he said. "If the tickets are written for valid reasons, that's not harassment. . . . I think every ticket written was legitimate. So let 'em have at it."