Pubdate: Sun, 03 Sep 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: Matt Krasnowski, Copley News Service


Decision Seen As No Panacea For Rampart Scandal

LOS ANGELES -- Just days after the Los Angeles Police Department brass' 
back-patting celebration for their handling of the Democratic National 
Convention, a federal judge slapped them back to their scandal-plagued reality.

U.S. District Judge William Rea ruled last week that the LAPD can be sued 
under the same federal law designed to take out Mafioso and drug networks: 
the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. 
Legal observers aren't certain the LAPD is the first law enforcement 
organization to face such a claim, but it's clearly the highest-profile 
public RICO target.

"They're dead meat and they're mine," said Stephen Yagman, a longtime 
crusader against the department and one of the lawyers pushing the RICO 
claim. "This is a little boy's dream come true."

But legal experts say the LAPD is a long way from Yagman's grasp and even 
if he does win, the payoff may not be any greater for the LAPD's alleged 

"The decision just opens the door, it doesn't say you have a case," said 
Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Loyola 
University. "There are some real hurdles along the way."

Still, experts agree the ruling does make a shocking statement about the 
city's Police Department and raises the stakes in a stack of lawsuits that 
cost taxpayers dearly.

For nearly a year, the LAPD has been racked by a corruption scandal 
stemming from its Rampart Division, a densely populated chunk of the city 
west of downtown. A gang officer caught filching cocaine from an evidence 
locker reportedly told investigators that he and scores of his colleagues 
lied in court, regularly planted drugs on suspects, and on some occasions 
meted out unjustified beatings and shootings.

More than 100 criminal convictions have been tossed out in light of the 
scandal. More than 70 officers have been under investigation. Five officers 
have been arrested and face criminal trials.

Dozens of lawsuits have been filed stemming from the scandal, with the cost 
to the city estimated at $100 million.

On top of this, the U.S. Department of Justice has determined there is a 
"pattern and practice" of discriminatory conduct by the LAPD and is 
threatening the force with a federal takeover if changes aren't made.

After dealing with thousands of street protesters during the Democratic 
National Convention, some city leaders took pains to laud the force. Still, 
officers were criticized for being too aggressive and detaining people 
without justification.

The RICO ruling may seem like piling on, but LAPD Chief Bernard Parks was 
unmoved. He called Rea's decision a "theory of law" and told reporters not 
to make a "great fanfare" of it.

Lawyers in the City Attorney's Office are equally confident they will 
prevail and will appeal Rea's decision.

Legal observers doubt the city attorneys will have any luck with that 
appeal but said the government will still have other opportunities to get 
Rea to reject the RICO claim.

Under RICO, plaintiffs can allege a broad range of illegal conduct if they 
can prove "a pattern of racketeering activity" that can be as few as two 
violations -- such as bribery or extortion -- in a decade. While first 
designed to take on the mob, it's been applied to street gangs, labor 
unions and Fortune 500 companies in criminal and civil cases.

And, traditionally, RICO can up the ante in civil cases, offering 
successful plaintiffs three times the amount that a jury might award.

Before trial, the plaintiffs must define the alleged "criminal enterprise." 
Yagman said he's going after the entire department.

The strategy could force the LAPD to turn over volumes of documents on bad 
cops and how they're handled by the department. However, some legal experts 
say the broader the target, the more difficult it may be for the plaintiffs 
to hit.

"If the lawsuit tries to prove the entire Police Department is corrupt, 
that's a pretty high burden," said David McCormack, a Houston lawyer who 
once prosecuted organized-crime cases and has written a book on RICO.

Assuming the RICO claim gets to trial and prevails, others say that may not 
help the Rampart plaintiffs financially because RICO -- despite the threat 
of triple damages -- isn't designed for every civil damage case.

"RICO is aimed at business injury," said Myrna Raeder, a law professor at 
Southwestern University, "It's designed to (punish) for lost wages or loss 
of ability to enjoy your property. You look at the victims in this case, 
they're not the kind of people who are making big money or property owners 
that (RICO) would compensate."

But some legal observers say using RICO can only help.

"The RICO ruling is one of the most powerful weapons the plaintiffs have," 
said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert at the University of 
Southern California. "It's a weapon for negotiation's sake and it's a 
weapon when it goes before a jury."
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