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L.A. County agrees to pay $550,000 in false drug arrest lawsuit

With the arresting sheriff's deputy facing criminal charges, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to pay $550,000 to a couple who sued the department alleging they were falsely arrested and framed with drug possession.

County lawyers recommended the settlement for Tatiana Lopez and Miguel Amarillas in their false arrest and malicious prosecution lawsuit, citing the "risks and uncertainties" of litigation. In addition to the $550,000, the county has already spent about $322,000 on litigation, including $288,000 for a lawyer.

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Deputy Francisco Enriquez, one of the members of a narcotics task force involved in the arrests on Oct. 7, 2009, was charged last July with perjury and filing a false police report connected to allegations that he falsely claimed he discovered nine bags of methamphetamine in a patrol car after he drove Lopez from the traffic stop to the station.

Enriquez wrote in a police report that he discovered drugs in the patrol car after Lopez was taken out of the car. However, the L.A. County district attorney's office in charging the deputy said the woman was actually transported by another deputy, not Enriquez.

In 2010, those inconsistencies led prosecutors to drop a felony charge against Tatiana Lopez.

Thomas Beck, the couple's attorney at the time, accused the deputies of lying about her arrest and seeking to have her prosecuted in retaliation for her filing a complaint against the deputies.

"The crime report was deliberately falsified," Beck said. "The whole case was fabricated against my client."

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore, reacting to the supervisors' decision, said Sheriff Lee Baca is seeking to fire the deputy charged with lying.

In an arrest report, Enriquez said that when Lopez got out of his car at the Century station in Lynwood, he noticed a plastic bag containing nine bags of methamphetamine on the floor near where she had been sitting.

But radio communications show that a different deputy told dispatchers he was taking Lopez to the station, according to court documents filed by Beck.

The district attorney's office initially declined to file charges against Lopez, concluding there was not enough evidence. But prosecutors later charged her with possession for sale of a controlled substance after deputies wrote new reports that provided more details about the night of the arrest.

Those reports were written a day after Beck said he and Lopez met with a sheriff's lieutenant to discuss a misconduct complaint she had filed against the deputies. "It was blatant retaliation," Beck said. 

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Chief William McSweeney, who heads the detective division, said in 2010 that a preliminary review found no dishonesty by the deputies.

Nonetheless, he said at the time the department would investigate the details of the arrest. That investigation led to the charges against Enriquez.

When Lopez was arrested, she was a student at Cerritos College and had no criminal record. Her fiance, Miguel Amarillas, who said he once associated with a gang, worked checking cables on oil rigs for a company in Long Beach.

On the evening of their arrest, they were driving to her parents' house in South Gate to pick up her 5-year-old son when they stopped for gas near their home in Downey.

Enriquez wrote in his report that he stopped the pair after seeing Amarillas' gold 1993 Lexus driving dangerously on Imperial Highway. He said he noticed that Lopez was speaking rapidly and sweating, even though the night was cool. He suspected that she and Amarillas were on drugs, and the couple were taken to the sheriff's station in separate patrol cars.

After he dropped Lopez off, Enriquez wrote, he and other deputies searched the couple's home, where he found another bag with drugs in a bedroom dresser. The bag, he wrote, contained the same distinctive insignia as the bags found in the patrol car.

Enriquez said he gave Lopez and Amarillas a chance to provide a urine sample for a drug test, but they refused.

But the couple said they were never asked to take a urine test and that they had not used drugs and did not possess any. Lopez accused the deputies of trying to pressure her into saying the drugs belonged to her fiance and said a deputy threatened to have her son removed.

Lopez was jailed for two days before she was released without charges; Amarillas was also eventually released without charges.

Lopez said the episode left her traumatized and that she has had trouble sleeping since then.

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