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L.A. to pay $300,000 in lawsuit over arrest of former City Council aide

L.A. to pay $300,000 in lawsuit over arrest of former City Council aide
Los Angeles City Hall, center. The City Council voted 13-0 to pay a former aide who, a judge ruled, was wrongfully arrested. (Scott Harrison / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles will pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a former City Council aide after a Superior Court judge found he had been wrongfully arrested, an incident that drew media attention and led to him losing his job.

The City Council voted 13 to 0 without discussion Wednesday to approve the settlement payment.

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In his lawsuit, Fredy Torres said he was arrested without probable cause two years ago in South Los Angeles.

Torres, who was working at the time as a field deputy for Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, had just parked a city car when he was stopped and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The 2016 arrest drew attention from the Times and other outlets in part because another City Hall aide was arrested on suspicion of DUI the same weekend. That aide, Fredy Ceja, still serves as the spokesman for Councilman Gil Cedillo.

Days after his arrest, Torres lost his job with the city.

Torres was not ultimately charged with a DUI. Police told him that his drug test came back negative, according to his lawsuit. Earlier this year, a Superior Court judge ruled that Torres had been unlawfully arrested and improperly held even after passing a Breathalyzer exam at a police station.

“I honestly hope that this lawsuit sends a message to the Los Angeles Police Department leadership,” Torres said Wednesday. “We need to take a closer look at what our department is doing to improve hiring, training and holding officers accountable to protect low-income communities like South Los Angeles.

“If this happened to me, a person who worked for the city,” Torres said, “I just think about who else this has happened to.”

Footage from body cameras showed that Torres was “clearly and coherently communicating” with LAPD Officer Steven Ruiz and following his instructions, the court noted. Instead, it was Officer Ruiz who “seemed somewhat excited and oddly aggressive on the night in question,” drawing his weapon when he first approached Torres, Superior Court Judge William F. Fahey wrote.

“There was nothing about Torres’ actions which warranted the display of Ruiz’s gun,” the court stated. “Nor was there any reason to handcuff Torres.”

At one point before Torres was taken to the police station, Ruiz asked if the matter could be “squashed” — which Torres took to mean dropped — but walked off after Torres asked for his business card and badge number, the judge noted. Fahey concluded that Ruiz had realized he had “overstepped” and then become worried about the possible consequences.

Fahey was unconvinced when Ruiz asserted Torres had failed field sobriety tests, concluding that was “not corroborated by the videos” or by other officers. A urine analysis found no trace of any controlled substance.

In his lawsuit, Torres alleged that the wrongful arrest had cost him his job and set him up for public ridicule. It still comes up in job interviews, he said Wednesday.

“It was a very dark time,” he said. “Because I felt like others around me didn’t know the truth. … I had to find another career path.”

The court concluded that Torres had not lost his job because of the arrest, but “because of a breach of trust and poor judgment” after he had not been forthright about empty beer cans and a whiskey bottle found later in the city car. However, Harris-Dawson said Wednesday that before the arrest “his employment was not in question.”

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“I regret the entire situation,” Harris-Dawson said, calling it “tragic.”

The councilman praised Torres for pursuing the case. “From the outset, he felt that something wrong had happened. And he saw it through rather than just walking away,” he said. “Every time someone does that, I feel like it makes the system a little bit better.”

Torres and the city also agreed that the court judgment against Ruiz, the officer who handcuffed him, would be vacated, according to a copy of the settlement agreement included in a court filing. The city attorney’s office was not able to clarify Wednesday whether that had happened.

LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein declined to address the matter this week, saying, “We are not able to comment on pending litigation.”

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