Pubdate: Wed, 30 Aug 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Don Terry


LOS ANGELES, Aug. 29 -- A federal judge has ruled that the government's
anti-racketeering statute, created to deal with drug bosses and organized
crime figures, can be used in lawsuits against the troubled Los Angeles
Police Department. Besides allowing one of the largest police departments in
the United States to be dealt with as a criminal enterprise, the decision by
Judge William J. Rea of Federal District Court drastically increases the
city's potential liability in its worst police scandal in decades, since the
law permits a longer statute of limitations and could triple the damages the
city could otherwise face.

The case involves claims by one of the many people who say they were victims
of violent and corrupt officers at the department's Rampart Division, whose
actions are at the heart of the scandal. The city had tried to have this
case thrown out, and in making his ruling on Monday the judge rejected that

Legal experts said today that it appeared the department would be the first
police agency in the country to face trial under the statute, which over the
years has come to be used in a wide variety of litigation. Edwin
Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said
he spent Monday evening researching the matter and could find no other case
in which a police department had been brought to trial using the statute,
known as RICO -- the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law.

Judge Rea did not deal with the credibility of the plaintiff's claim that
the department condoned and authorized the actions by the corrupt officers,
but said that if those accusation were true, they would constitute
racketeering activity and so would come under the RICO law.

Under RICO, the statute of limitations is 10 years, rather than 1 year as in
other civil rights litigation, so the ruling could open the courtroom to
many more cases.

For instance, the lead plaintiff in the case, Louie Guerrero, says that the
police beat and falsely arrested him on drug charges in November 1997 and
that he was released from prison before details of the Rampart scandal
became known last year. Under other civil rights laws, his lawsuit against
the department would have to be dismissed.

Nearly 100 criminal cases have been overturned as a result of the scandal,
in which officers are said to have planted evidence and beaten people in a
struggling Latino neighborhood for sport and profit.

City officials have previously estimated the city's liability at between
$125 million to $200 million.

"If the plaintiffs prevail," Mr. Chemerinsky said today, "there is
staggering potential liability for the city, just staggering."

But Mr. Chemerinsky cautioned that the judge had simply ruled that the case
could go forward. "Whether the plaintiffs can ultimately prove it," he said,
"we'll just have to wait and see."

Stephen Yagman, a lawyer for Mr. Guerrero, said, "We have in effect
converted a civil rights lawsuit into a racketeering lawsuit, and it's about
time." Mr. Yagman said he had no doubt that "a reasonable jury will look at
the evidence and agree with what I've been claiming for years: that the
L.A.P.D. is essentially a criminal enterprise."

Mr. Yagman said his four-lawyer firm has 19 Rampart-related cases and 50
more on file. He said the lawyers were analyzing 100 more potential cases
and had brought in a firm with 26 lawyers to help.

"And we're thinking about hiring even more lawyers," he said.

Both the Police Department and the mayor's office declined to comment and
referred all calls to the Los Angeles city attorney's office. Mike Qualls, a
spokesman for the city attorney, said, "Obviously, we're disappointed in the
ruling, and we're reviewing our options."

The Rampart scandal has embarrassed the Los Angeles Police Department for
months as story after story about corrupt and brutal officers has chipped
away at a reputation already tarnished by the O.J. Simpson case, the Rodney
King beating and the riots of 1992. The image long polished by Hollywood and
sent across the world by reruns of "Dragnet" seems long gone now.

Now, the city and the United States Justice Department are negotiating ways
to prevent the federal government from suing the Police Department for a
pattern of civil rights violations.

Judge Rea also refused the city's request to throw out the plaintiff's
request for an injunction that would forbid police officers to engage in the
planting of evidence or commit perjury, two pillars of the Rampart charges
of official abuse.
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