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Cities Get Break on Permitting of Cell Towers

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court made it easier Tuesday for cities to say no to new cellphone towers in their neighborhoods.

In a 9-0 ruling, the justices said the federal law that was designed to encourage the growth of the telecommunications industry did not allow cities to be sued for damages for refusing to permit a cellphone tower.

In the last decade, 140,000 cellphone towers have sprouted around the nation, but the phone industry says it needs more of them to eliminate “dead spots.”

The high court’s decision will take some of the pressure off local governments to approve permits for new cellphone towers, although it does not mean they can refuse all of them.

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The ruling was one of three Tuesday in which the high court overturned decisions of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in San Francisco.

In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court restored a death sentence for an Orange County murderer who became a born-again Christian after he went to prison. The 9th Circuit, in a 6-5 decision, had reversed William Payton’s death sentence because jurors might have thought they could not consider his behind-bars conversion to Christianity. A prosecutor had argued that only the crime counts -- not what happens after the convict goes to prison.

The Supreme Court said the jury almost surely weighed Payton’s religious conversion, but decided he deserved to die anyway.

And in a 5-4 decision, the high court said police in Simi Valley had not used excessive force when they handcuffed for nearly three hours all of the occupants of a house that was raided, even though they had quickly learned that the people who were at home were innocent.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the police were free to handcuff everyone when carrying out such a raid to protect themselves. In this case, police were looking for a violent gang member, he said, and therefore had reason to be cautious.

The ruling on cellphone towers will affect disputes across the country. However, it did not arise from a typical conflict between a cellular phone company and a municipality, but rather from an unusual dispute between a ham radio operator and the city of Rancho Palos Verdes near Los Angeles.

Mark Abrams, the ham radio operator, erected a 52-foot radio tower on his property on Oceanaire Drive in the Del Cerro neighborhood. City officials objected in 1998, when they learned Abrams was using the tower for commercial broadcasts, and they denied him a permit to broadcast from the tower.

He then sued the city in federal court, seeking an order that would allow him to keep the tower as well as monetary damages and attorney fees. When the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Abrams, the Supreme Court took up the dispute to decide whether the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed such damage claims against cities.

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Writing for the court in Rancho Palos Verdes vs. Abrams, Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress did not intend for local governments to be liable for huge money verdicts in such disputes. He said it could have “a particularly severe impact” on small towns and rural communities across America if the giants of the cellphone industry could seek monetary damages and legal fees.

Cities must give their reasons for refusing to permit new phone towers, Scalia pointed out, and disappointed applicants may go to court to challenge a city’s decision. But that is all, he concluded. They may not seek monetary damages from the city, even if officials wrongly denied the permit, he said.

The ruling is a victory for the League of California Cities and the National League of Cities, which joined the case on the side of Rancho Palos Verdes. Groups representing the cellphone industry had sided with Abrams, arguing that unless checked by the courts, cities could use their zoning powers to exclude cellphone towers.

The death penalty decision is only the latest example of the recurring dispute between the liberal-leaning 9th Circuit and the more conservative Supreme Court.

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In 1996, Congress changed the law to say that federal judges should defer to reasonable decisions of the state courts in death penalty cases.

In 1980, Payton raped and stabbed to death Pamela Montgomery at a boardinghouse in Garden Grove, Calif. He also repeatedly stabbed two other people, who survived to testify against him.

A jury convicted Payton and sentenced him to die, and the California courts upheld the sentence. But the 9th Circuit said that in imposing the death sentence, the jury probably had not weighed all the mitigating evidence in the case -- especially his conversion to Christianity -- because of the prosecutor’s comments.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that the decisions of the California courts were reasonable, and that the jury may well have seen Payton’s religious conversion as “altogether insignificant in light of the brutality of the crimes.”

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Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying reasonable jurors would have thought they could not consider his religious conversion as grounds for leniency. The chief justice took no part in the ruling in Brown vs. Payton.

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento applauded the decision. The 1996 law “was specifically drafted to prevent the type of disregard for the rule of law that the 9th Circuit exhibited in this case,” said Charles Hobson, a lawyer for the group.

The ruling in the Simi Valley case gives police more leeway in carrying out raids.

When a SWAT team burst into a house in 1998, they were looking for a gang member, but instead awoke 18-year-old Iris Mena. With guns pointed at her, she was handcuffed and taken in the rain to a nearby garage.

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Police quickly realized the target of their search was not there, but Mena said she was kept in handcuffs for nearly three hours. She later sued officers Darin Mueller and Robert Brill, contending they subjected her to an unreasonable seizure in violation of the 4th Amendment.

A jury agreed with her and awarded $60,000 in damages, a verdict that was upheld by the 9th Circuit. Its judges said the prolonged handcuffing was an excessive use of force. In Muehler vs. Mena, the high court unanimously reversed the 9th Circuit’s decision, but the justices were split on why.

“The officers’ detention of Mena in handcuffs during the execution of the search warrant was reasonable and did not violate the 4th Amendment,” Rehnquist said for the 5-4 majority. But Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer disagreed in part, saying a search warrant did “not give officers carte blanche to keep individuals who pose no threat in handcuffs throughout a search, no matter how long it may last.”

Since there were other possible reasons for upholding the jury’s verdict, the high court sent the case back to the 9th Circuit for further consideration.

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