Judge OKs Use of Racketeering Law in Rampart Suits
A federal judge ruled Monday that the Los Angeles Police Department can be sued as a racketeering enterprise by people who claim their civil rights were violated by Rampart Division officers.
The ruling, which legal experts called unprecedented, also opened the door to an injunction that would forbid officers from engaging in evidence planting and perjury.
The ruling creates the possibility that the Los Angeles Police Department could be the first in the nation to face trial under federal racketeering laws. It also could dramatically increase the city’s liability, previously estimated in the range of about $100 million, in the worst police corruption scandal in Los Angeles history.
“This means a quantum change in the damage potential,” said Santa Monica attorney Brian C. Lysaght, who is co-counsel for 15 people who have filed Rampart-related lawsuits. He referred to the fact that under the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, triple damages can be awarded.
His jubilant co-counsel, Stephen Yagman of Venice, proclaimed: “This makes it possible that we can demonstrate what I have always claimed: The LAPD is a criminal enterprise. I think we can prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.”
In another blow to the Police Department, U.S. District Judge William J. Rea on Monday rebuffed the city’s attempt to throw out a major part of the case--the plaintiff’s request for an injunction that would forbid officers from engaging in evidence planting and perjury. If such an injunction were issued, it would place the department under ongoing scrutiny by the judge.
Chief Assistant City Atty. Thomas C. Hokinson said the office was disappointed and surprised at the ruling by Rea, a veteran judge appointed by President Reagan. Hokinson also said he thought the city ultimately would prevail in the case.
David Kalish, chief spokesman for the LAPD, said he had no immediate comment because he had not been briefed on the ruling.
Under the RICO statute, racketeering is defined as a criminal enterprise that affects interstate commerce and uses illegal means to further its ends. Originally enacted as a tool in the government’s war against organized crime, the law has been used against a variety of other wrongdoers over the past two decades.
Lysaght, Yagman and USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said they were unaware of any situation where a police department had been brought to trial as a defendant under the RICO law.
Rea’s decision came in a case filed on behalf of Louie Guerrero, 36. His suit alleges that while walking on a Los Angeles street in November 1997, he was grabbed by Rampart officers.
Guerrero asserts that the officers choked, kicked and punched him and then arrested him on phony charges. After being released from prison, Guerrero sued the city for alleged civil rights and racketeering violations.
Lawyers for the city attorney’s office, defending the department, had sought to get Guerrero’s case dismissed on several grounds. They asked the judge to dismiss the RICO claim on the grounds that Guerrero had no standing to bring such a claim.
Guerrero sued on behalf of himself and other individuals similarly situated. There has been no ruling yet on whether the case will be granted class action status, but Yagman predicted that it would be.
The city attorneys also tried to get the case thrown out on the ground that a one-year statute of limitations had passed.
And they contended that to bring a civil rights case, Guerrero had to have a ruling from a state court throwing out his criminal conviction. So far, about 100 convictions have been overturned as a result of the Rampart scandal. But Guerrero’s is not among them.
Yagman said that Guerrero served his time before the scandal broke and that the district attorney’s office had not acted to have the conviction voided. Yagman said the fact that Rea ruled against the city on this point was particularly significant because it expanded the number of people who could become plaintiffs in a class action case against the city.
Under the RICO law, the statute of limitations extends back 10 years, considerably longer than the one governing civil rights violations.
In addition to money damages, the lawsuit asks that a sweeping injunction be granted against Rampart officers barring them from committing a variety of illegal acts. Rea on Monday rejected the city’s motion to throw out that request.
Consequently, Lysaght said that later this week he and Yagman would go into court and ask Rea to grant a preliminary injunction barring the police from “continuing the pattern of violations alleged in our lawsuit.”
The lawsuit alleges that CRASH officers at Rampart planted false evidence, gave perjured testimony, improperly used officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in making arrests and physically assaulted people illegally.
To date, five officers have been arrested and criminally charged in connection with the Rampart scandal. More than a dozen face internal charges of misconduct. About 70 officers remain under investigation for a variety of alleged crimes and misconduct. Additionally, several officers have resigned as a result of allegations leveled by former LAPD Officer Rafael Perez, the informant at the center of the scandal.
Rea’s ruling comes as city officials negotiate with U.S. Justice Department officials, who are contemplating a massive suit against the LAPD alleging that the department has engaged in a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations. The Times reported earlier this month that the city’s negotiating team is deeply divided on its strategy.
On Monday night, Lysaght said the City Attorney’s office had rebuffed all his entreaties to resolve the Rampart cases in a mass settlement--a move he said would save time and money and bring some closure to the matter.
“Up to now, at least the litigating arm of the city attorney’s office has had their heads in the sand. I think this will be a wake-up call.”
A bill to extend the deadline for filing Rampart-related suits against police appears dead. B7