Thursday, January 24, 2002
C.A. Throws Out Detectives’ Suit Against Ex-LAPD Chief Williams
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A suit by two Los Angeles detectives, claiming that ex-Chief of Police Willie Williams slandered them at a press conference by accusing them of falsifying reports in a homicide investigation, has been thrown out by this district’s Court of Appeal under the anti-SLAPP statute
In its second ruling in the case, Div. Two held Tuesday that the suit by Charles Markel and Andrew Teague should be stricken because the two cannot prove Williams acted with actual malice or recklessness. Presiding Justice Roger L. Boren authored the unpublished opinion for Div. Two.
The suit grows out of the press conference called by Williams in September 1995, following dismissal of murder charges against Kevin Adams, a suspect in a fatal 1994 shooting.
“As chief of police, Williams was within bounds when he informed the public that the murder case was dismissed because the DA and the trial court learned that plaintiffs had given or countenanced false evidence at the preliminary hearing,” Boren wrote. “If no public official were allowed to address the public regarding matters of local importance until after a trial or administrative hearing was completed, the right to free speech (and the public’s right to know) would be impermissibly chilled.”
The then-chief, whose department was under fire as a result of its alleged mishandling of the O.J. Simpson investigation, announced that Teague and Markel had been relieved of duty. Williams noted that Teague had been identified in the Christopher Commission report and had been the subject of some 18 complaints in his career.
He also said that one of the officers, apparently meaning Teague, had lied in court and that the other had observed “the code of silence.” The department, he said, was determined “to get rid of this dirty linen.”
Teague told internal investigators, and later testified at a Board of Rights hearing, that he created the reports as a ruse to get a witness to cooperate. The procedure is a commonly used technique, and Teague said a prosecutor had approved.
It was not until after the preliminary hearing, Teague said, that he realized the fabricated documents were presented to the court as genuine evidence. The board concluded that Teague was not guilty of fabricating documents, that Markel had not failed to take appropriate action, and that both officers were guilty only of failing to prepare for the hearing.
The pair were returned to duty, Teague with a one-day suspension and Markel with a reprimand. Both sued, however, alleging that Williams’ allegations were knowingly or recklessly false and had damaged their careers and caused them emotional distress.
The suit was originally dismissed, but the Court of Appeal said in its earlier ruling that the plaintiffs should have been allowed to depose Williams and take other discovery to establish the chief’s state of mind at the time of the press conference.
Following discovery, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige denied the motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 425.16. He reasoned that a jury could find Williams to have acted recklessly, based on the testimony of LAPD internal affairs chief Thomas Lorenzen.
Lorenzen said he briefed the chief and suggested there might be some credibility to Teague’s explanation. Lorenzen said he felt that Williams was “too specific and too personal” at the press conference, and would not have held a press conference had he been in Williams’ position.
Williams testified that he found Teague’s explanation unbelievable at the time, based on his own 34 years of law enforcement experience. It didn’t seem reasonable, Williams said, that an officer would prepare an elaborate ruse and then turn over the false documents to the prosecutor four or five months later, forgetting they were fabricated.
Boren said the chief’s explanation and the testimony of other witnesses made it unlikely that Teague and Markel could have won the suit. Under the anti-SLAPP law, once a defendant establishes that a suit deals with a public issue and impacts free speech or petition rights, the burden is on the plaintiffs to show a probability of winning in order to avoid having the suit stricken.
“Williams could not have known in 1995 that the Board of Rights would ultimately exonerate plaintiffs in 1996,” Boren reasoned. “If it were crystal clear during the initial investigation in 1995 that plaintiffs did nothing wrong, then presumably plaintiffs would not have had to face a Board of Rights in 1996….”
Attorneys on appeal were Deputy City Attorneys Gerald M. Sato and Gregory P. Orland for Williams and the city and Matthew B.F. Biren and Debra J. Tauger of Biren & Katzman for the city.
The case is Markel v. City of Los Angeles, B140484.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company