Pubdate: Wed, 30 Aug 2000
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2000 San Jose Mercury News
Contact:  750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190
Fax: (408) 271-3792
Author: Don Terry, New York Times


Ruling Could Boost Liability In Scandal

LOS ANGELES -- 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 like a criminal enterprise, the decision Monday by Judge 
William J. Rea of federal District Court drastically increases the city's 
potential liability in its worst police scandal in decades. 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 motion.

Legal experts said Tuesday 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.

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

Under RICO, the statue of limitations is 10 years, rather than one 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 
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. RICO would allow it.

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," Chemerinsky said Tuesday, "there is staggering 
potential liability for the city, just staggering."

But 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 Guerrero, said, "We have in effect converted a 
civil rights lawsuit into a racketeering lawsuit -- and it's about time." 
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 LAPD is 
essentially a criminal enterprise."

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

"And we're thinking about hiring even more lawyers," he said. "This is just 
the tip of the iceberg."

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."

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

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.
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