Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Court Upholds Award in Officers’ Suit Over Rampart Scandal
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday upheld a jury’s award of $5 million each to three former LAPD officers who claimed they were wrongfully prosecuted in connection with the Rampart scandal.
Holding that substantial evidence supported the jury’s determination that the arrest and prosecution of the former officers—who were acquitted of perjury and conspiracy charges arising from the accusations of another officer implicated in the scandal—lacked probable cause, resulted from an official city policy, and caused damages to the officers’ personal and professional lives, the court affirmed verdicts against the City of Los Angeles and former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks in the officers’ federal civil rights suit.
Authorities arrested and charged Paul Harper, Brian Liddy and Edward Ortiz with conspiracy and perjury in 2000 after former officer Rafael Perez—who revealed widespread corruption in the LAPD’s anti-gang CRASH unit as part of a plea bargain on drug charges—accused the three of planting a firearm on a suspect in 1996, and then filing false reports to cover it up.
Parks appointed a task force to review the event under a chain of command that reported to him, but did so only one month before the statute of limitations would run on any possible criminal charges against the officers.
Despite recognizing Perez as “a criminal and a proven liar,” and inconsistencies in his statements, the task force concluded that a tape of communications from the event and discrepancies in the logs of other officers who responded to a request for backup during the incident established probable cause to arrest the officers.
However, members of the task force later admitted that they “rushed” the investigation, and then-District Attorney Gil Garcetti—whose office worked in connection with the task force—later testified that Parks hounded him and his deputies, asking him to “get the case behind us,” even if Garcetti lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute.
Garcetti also said that he thought Parks was “intentionally hampering” the investigation, and that the task force was more interested in protecting the department’s reputation that uncovering wrongdoing anywhere but at the rank and file level.
When the three former officers were acquitted of all charges, the LAPD issued a press release quoting Parks as stating that the jury’s verdict sent a clear message that misconduct will not be tolerated and offering his thanks to the task force for their “arduous investigative efforts.”
Civil Rights Suit
The three then brought suit against the city and Parks, as well as the County of Los Angeles, Garcetti and others. After their claims against all defendants except for the city and Parks were dismissed, a jury found in the former officers’ favor and awarded each $5,000,001 in compensatory damages.
On appeal, Judge Richard A. Paez rejected the defendants’ arguments that the jury’s verdicts were not supported by substantial evidence.
Examining the officers’ arrest for probable cause, Paez wrote that the court could not say that the evidence permitted only a conclusion contrary to the jury’s verdict.
“It was entirely within the jury’s prerogative to find more credible the Officers’ version of the facts surrounding the arrest and the jury was entitled to disregard the City’s account of the incident, which was fraught with unreasonable inferences, discrepancies, and material omissions.”
Paez similarly wrote that substantial evidence supported the jury’s determination that the constitutional violations were the result of an official policy set by Parks.
“The jury reasonably could have concluded that Chief Parks’ telephonic statements to District Attorney Garcetti, in which Parks expressed confidence in Perez and pressured Garcetti to file criminal charges without a complete or fully corroborated investigation, were indicative of an official policy whereby the City ‘impliedly or tacitly authorized, approved, or encouraged illegal conduct by its police officers’,” he said.
Turning to the question of causation, Paez continued:
“Parks and the Task Force were instrumental in causing legal proceedings against the Officers and the Task Force’s policy of readying cases for the filing of charges as quickly as possible, with or without probable cause had the patently foreseeable consequence of causing the Officers’ arrest without probable cause. The unconstitutional policy at issue and the particular injury alleged are not only ‘closely related,’…they are cause and effect.”
Paez also rejected the defendants’ challenge to the amount of the jury’s award to the plaintiffs for their “impairment of reputation, personal humiliation, and medical anguish and suffering.”
The defendants argued that the three former officers were not entitled to identical awards because each suffered different levels of harm.
However Paez, noting evidence in the record of the adverse physical and emotional effects on the officers, their careers and their families, wrote that the record sufficiently demonstrated that the harms suffered by the officers were “similar in content and quality.”
Judge Jerome Ferris and Senior U.S. District Judge Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York, sitting by designation, joined Paez in his opinion.
The case is Harper v. City of Los Angeles, 06-55519.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company