Pubdate: Thu, 31 Aug 2000
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2000 The Washington Post Company
Contact:  1150 15th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20071
Author: Rene Sanchez, Washington Post Staff Writer


LOS ANGELES, Aug. 30 - Of all the ugly names the police department here has 
been called since it became mired in a massive corruption scandal last 
year, none may be worse than the one a federal judge invoked this week.

In a ruling that startled city officials, U.S. District Judge William J. 
Rea said that the pattern of extreme misconduct shown by the LAPD suggests 
that it could be considered a "criminal enterprise," subject to lawsuits 
under federal anti-racketeering laws that could inflict a staggering 
financial toll on Los Angeles.

The judge's decision is unprecedented, legal analysts say. After all, the 
laws were enacted nearly 30 years ago to give law enforcement officials 
more power to crack down on organized crime gangs involved in extortion, 
bribery or obstruction of justice – not a police force.

But this force is facing extraordinary charges. In a scandal still 
unfolding, officers are being investigated for allegedly orchestrating a 
widespread, violent conspiracy: shooting unarmed suspects, framing others 
by planting weapons or drugs on them, falsifying police reports and lying 
under oath in court.

Since the scandal erupted, five officers have been charged with felonies. 
About 70 more are under investigation. Nearly 100 criminal cases linked to 
their actions have been thrown out, and a few people who were wrongly 
convicted have been released from prison.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern 
California, said the potential implications of the federal judge's decision 
are enormous. In essence, he said, the LAPD could be brought to trial "for 
acting like an illegal mob."

"It's a novel theory, and it could tremendously expand the scope of 
liability the city could be facing," Chemerinsky said. "The racketeering 
statute is one of the most powerful tools a plaintiff has because it is so 

Most important, the federal law provides a 10-year statute of limitations 
on racketeering crimes, which could leave the LAPD vulnerable to more 
lawsuits concerning alleged misdeeds by officers and give attorneys of 
alleged victims more time to prepare cases. California law provides just a 
one-year statute of limitations.

The federal law also allows juries to triple damage awards to any plaintiff 
they decide has been wronged.

Until now, city officials have been bracing to pay between $100 million and 
$200 million to settle lawsuits stemming from the scandal. The financial 
stakes suddenly could be much higher.

Today, city attorneys announced they were preparing an appeal of the 
judge's ruling. "We believe this order is wrong on the law," said Mike 
Qualls, a spokesman for city attorney James K. Hahn.

The corruption scandal is rooted in the police department's Rampart 
Division, which covers a blighted immigrant neighborhood near downtown. 
Most of the officers being investigated have been part of elite squads that 
the department created to fight street gangs.

The controversy began when a former Rampart officer, Rafael Perez, began 
telling investigators about police misconduct in exchange for leniency on 
charges he faced for stealing cocaine from a police evidence locker. Perez 
is now in prison.

The federal judge issued his ruling in a lawsuit filed against the city by 
Louie Guerrero, an alleged victim of police abuse. Guerrero contends that 
as he walked along a street in the Rampart neighborhood in November 1997, 
officers choked, kicked and punched him, then arrested him on phony 
charges. Guerrero's suit includes other plaintiffs who allege the LAPD 
violated their civil rights in similar ways.

City attorneys had sought dismissal of the suit in part because the 
one-year statute of limitations for suing under state law had passed. But 
the judge rejected the city's motion.

Stephen Yagman, a lawyer representing Guerrero and other plaintiffs, 
praised the move. He said it could be just the weapon that victims of 
police abuse have long needed to force reform upon the LAPD, whose image 
has been tarnished by the infamous Rodney G. King beating of 1991 and 
conduct by some officers that became known during O.J. Simpson's 1994 trial.

"Now we will be able to expose up to 10 years of misconduct," Yagman said, 
"and to finally clean up a rotten department that the city just won't clean 
up on its own."
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