Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, February 25, 2013


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S.C. Declines to Review Ruling That Plaintiffs Waited Too Long to Sue LAPD Over Alleged Murder Coverup


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court has declined to review a ruling that the parents of a woman murdered by her husband’s former girlfriend, a police officer, waited too long to sue the Los Angeles Police Department on charges it covered up the crime.

The justices, at their weekly conference in San Francisco Wednesday, unanimously denied a petition for review by Nels and Loretta Rasmussen, parents of the murdered Sherri Rasmussen. Former LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus is serving a 27-year-to-life prison term for the murder, which the Rasmussens claim was covered up by police in order to protect their then-colleague.

Justice Laurence Rubin, in his unpublished opinion last year for Div. Eight, said the couple’s claims “call out for redress on the merits, subject to the other affirmative defenses raised by respondents.” But the statute of limitations, he explained, sometimes works in ways that “can be sadly inequitable.”

Sherri Rasmussen, was murdered in 1986. Lazarus was charged following a DNA match to a bite mark on the body, and was convicted in March of last year.

The Rasmussens sued in July 2010, while Lazarus was awaiting trial. They alleged that they had told the LAPD the day after the murder that they suspected their son-in-law’s ex-girlfriend was the killer, although they did not know her name at the time.

The dead woman’s husband, John Ruetten, identified Lazarus as his ex-girlfriend and told the investigators that she was an LAPD officer. The LAPD, the Rasmussens alleged, ignored evidence that Lazarus had stalked and confronted Sherri Rasmussen, focusing instead on an untenable theory that the killers were two unknown Hispanic men who had committed burglaries in the area.

That theory, they said, was discredited in 2005 when DNA obtained from the bite mark was tested and determined to have been left by a woman, although it took another four years before Lazarus was linked to the bite mark.

The Rasmussens sued the LAPD for civil rights conspiracy and sued Lazarus for wrongful death.

The city’s demurrer was sustained on the ground that mere failure to investigate a crime does not constitute a conspiracy under the Bane Act, Civil Code Sec. 52.1(b). The statute provides for damages in favor of a plaintiff whose exercise of his or her civil rights has been interfered with, or attempted to be interfered with, by means of coercion, threats or intimidation.

The Rasmussens claimed that when they told detectives they believed Lazarus was responsible, they were physically confronted in a manner they believed was designed to intimidate them, and were given the impression “that they would be harmed in some unforeseeable fashion” if they continued to accuse Lazarus. The object of the conspiracy, they alleged, was to deter them from filing suit against Lazarus for wrongful death.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth A. White sustained the city’s demurrer on the ground that all of the claims were time-barred.

Rubin agreed, citing the Rasmussens’ admission, in the amended complaint, that they ceased all contact with the LAPD regarding their daughter’s murder in 1998.

Once the plaintiffs were no longer dealing with the LAPD, the justice reasoned, the statute of limitations was triggered with regard to all of the claims.

Neither the fact that the plaintiffs continued to suffer damages as a result of the alleged cover-up, nor the lack of prosecution of Lazarus during the ensuing 23 years, is relevant to the statute-of-limitations issue, Rubin declared.

“While a successful criminal prosecution may have benefited the civil case,” he wrote, “it was not a prerequisite.”

The case is Rasmussen v. City of Los Angeles, B234731.

In other conference action, the justices declined to review a ruling by this district’s Div. Eight requiring partial disclosure of county lawyers’ billing records in a long-running civil rights case.

They also denied depublication of the Nov. 16 opinion in County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Anderson-Barker) (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 57.

The “pending litigation” exemption from the California Public Records Act’s disclosure requirements does not apply to a request by, or on behalf of a litigant, to see the billing records of a public entity’s counsel the court said.

The panel denied a writ petition by Los Angeles County, which challenged Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant’s order that it disclose billing records in the case of Venegas v. County of Los Angeles. The nearly-14-year-old litigation arose after officers of the Task Force for Regional Auto Theft Prevention detained a local couple on suspicion of auto theft.

The CPRA requires a public entity to disclose, upon written request, any public record unless an exemption created by the act itself or by another state or federal statute applies. The county claimed an exemption from Anderson-Barker’s requested disclosure under Government Code Sec. 6254(b), a subdivision of the CPRA which exempts records “pertaining to pending litigation to which the public agency is a party . . . until the pending litigation . . . has been finally adjudicated or otherwise settled.”

Rubin, writing for the Court of Appeal, noted that the CPRA makes disclosure available to “every person,” so Anderson-Barker’s reasons for her request are irrelevant. He also noted that exemptions to the act must be construed narrowly, and that prior Court of Appeal decisions have limited Sec. 6254(b) to documents specifically prepared for use in litigation.

Thus, Rubin explained, it is possible for a litigant to obtain documents under the CPRA that have some relationship to the litigation but would not be available under traditional discovery. He cited an earlier case involving a client of Mann and Cook, Fairley v. Superior Court (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 1414, in which the plaintiff in a civil rights suit was able to obtain documents related to the over-detention of inmates at the county jail.

In the Venegas case, Rubin wrote, “the records in the records in question relate to pending litigation and, indeed, would not have existed but for the pending litigation.” But substantial evidence supports the trial judge’s conclusion that because the documents were prepared to facilitate payment of the lawyers’ bills and not for use in the litigation, they did not fall under the exemption, Rubin said.

The justices also agreed to decide whether Welfare and Institutions Code Sec. 733(c) precludes committing a juvenile ward to the Division of Juvenile Justice if the wardship petition includes both qualifying and non-qualifying offenses and the most recent offense is a non-qualifying one. The Third District answered that question in the affirmative last October in In re D.B., C067353.


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