A federal court jury recently ruled that the city of Glendale must pay $1.16 million after finding that the Glendale Police Department wrongly detained a man, Edmond Ovasapyan, for eight months in connection with a murder investigation (“Man wins lawsuit against police,” Feb. 26). Additionally, the jury also awarded the man $150,000 in punitive damages to be paid by Glendale police Det. Arthur Frank and Lt. Ian Grimes.
The city has the option to agree to pay the punitive damages on behalf of these two officers — and the City Council should vote to do just that. The city must make clear that these police officers, who acted in good faith and within the scope of their employment, will not personally have to pay any money.
The background of this lawsuit was a home-invasion robbery and slaying committed in northwest Glendale in 2005.
Frank and Grimes headed the investigative team. During the course of the investigation, credible evidence, including an eyewitness identification of Ovasapyan by the victim’s mother, who was present during the robbery and slaying, led the Glendale police to arrest Ovasapyan.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office subsequently charged him with murder. The evidence at the time was strong enough that the independent Superior Court judge who conducted the preliminary hearing in the state court criminal case found that Ovasapyan should stand trial.
Frank and Grimes diligently continued to investigate the crime, and located DNA evidence that showed Ovasapyan had not committed the crime. They presented this new evidence to the district attorney’s office, after which Ovasapyan was released.
Ovasapyan was innocent, and he deserves full sympathy for having spent eight months in jail.
But, importantly, that does not mean that the police officers acted improperly. Regrettably, in the real world, police work does not proceed as smoothly as an episode of “CSI.” Real police work operates imperfectly, and sometimes apparently valid leads are followed that in fact later prove erroneous.
Under California Government Code Section 818, public entities like the city are immune from punitive damages. Nor are cities obligated to pay for punitive damages that are awarded against their employees. However, Government Code Section 825(b) also allows a city, in its discretion, to pay for punitive damages awarded against its employees if the employees acted “within the course and scope” of their employment, and “in good faith, without actual malice and in the apparent best interests” of the city.
That is the case here. Frank and Grimes acted as we should expect our police to act. They diligently investigated the crime. Initial credible evidence led them to arrest Ovasapyan (it is difficult to imagine not at least considering him as a suspect when an eyewitness to the murder had identified him). And when further evidence that they developed exonerated Ovasapyan, the officers presented it to the district attorney’s office, which resulted in Ovasapyan’s release.
In this instance, if the city fails to pay the officers’ punitive damages award, that would send a message to the police that when investigating serious crimes, it is better to do nothing at all, rather than to take any actions that could possibly risk personal liability. That would be poor public policy. Instead, the city should send the message that it will support its officers who act in good faith within the course and scope of their duties.
ABRAHAM MELTZER is a Glendale resident.