Thursday, January 9, 2014
Court of Appeal Upholds Dismissal of Officers’ Suit Against LAPD
Panel Says Department Had Right to Prompt Interrogation After Off-Duty Shooting Incident
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Police Department did not violate the rights of three officers by interrogating them without a lawyer present, and while they claimed to be in a sleep-deprived, intoxicated state, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. One rejected claims by officers Belinda Quezada, Abel Cepeida, and Enrique Verduzco that the department’s actions in response to a June 2010 incident, in which one of the officers fired his gun while off-duty, violated the Public Safety Officers Bill of Rights Act, the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, and the Fourth Amendment.
The panel affirmed Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Barbara M. Scheper’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the city and Chief Charles Beck.
According to the evidence presented in connection with the city’s motion, the officers had been drinking at a bar at First and Hewitt streets before walking back toward Hollenbeck substation, where their personal vehicles were parked. When Quezada, who was talking on her cell phone, heard gunshots, she looked behind her and saw Cepeida and Verduzco, who’d had multiple drinks, while Quezada had only one.
Multiple Shots Fired
Believing that at least one of the pair had fired a gun, she disarmed them both. Several police cars came to the scene in response to 911 calls suggesting that five or six shots had been fired. A sergeant ordered the officers “on-duty” and separated them for questioning.
Verduzco claimed he had fired a gun in his truck by accident, but officers found no evidence of a gun being fired in the truck.
The officers were eventually taken to three locations for questioning before being released at 9 p.m. on June 16, some 19 hours after the shots were fired. The questioning took place at Central Station, at Parker Center, and at the Bradbury Building, where the department’s Internal Affairs Group has offices.
At about 8 a.m. that morning, they requested that attorney Randall Quan be present during interrogation, but the LAPD determined that Quan would not be available until late that evening. The plaintiffs did not request another lawyer by name, or ask for a list of available attorneys.
‘Public Safety Statements’
During the questioning, they gave “public safety statements’—limited explanations of facts surrounding a shooting, which LAPD requires officers to give without a lawyer or union representative present. They were also subjected to breathalyzer tests and assigned a union representative for administrative interrogation.
The breath test results showed that Cepeida had a blood alcohol level of at least .12 and Verduzco at least .09, four hours after the incident.
A detective assigned to the Internal Affairs Group obtained a warrant to search the officers’ vehicles while they were being questioned. He found two weapons in Cepeida’s car, along with ammunition that was eventually determined to match the bullet casings and bullets found at the shooting scene.
Justice Jeffrey Johnson, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the LAPD complied with the Bill of Rights Act, or POBRA, which requires, among other things, that administrative interrogations be conducted at reasonable times, and during normal working hours unless the “seriousness of the investigation requires otherwise,” and that officers be allowed to have attorneys present.
The jurist cited Upland Police Officers Assn. v. City of Upland (2003) 111 Cal.App.4th 1294, which upheld the employing department’s right to interrogate an officer at a predetermined time, even though his lawyer was held up in a hearing and could not be present. The right to counsel during interrogation, the court held, is subject to a reasonableness requirement under which the burden is on the subject of the interrogation to ensure the attorney’s availability.
“Under Upland Police Officers Assn....plaintiffs were not entitled to wait for Quan to become available. The seriousness of the circumstances prompting the investigation—the drunken random firing of shots by off-duty officers—mandated that Internal Affairs conduct its investigation at the earliest opportunity while plaintiffs’ memories (although hampered by excessive alcohol consumption) were freshest. The fact that plaintiffs had been awake for many hours before being interrogated was the result of the incident occurring after they had been on duty for many hours, and was not the result of the Department’s unreasonable actions.”
Nor, he went on to say, did the LAPD violate the Bane Act, which prohibits interference with the exercise of civil rights through threats, intimidation or coercion, or the Fourth Amendment.
There was no showing that the officers were threatened or compelled to do anything that they were not legally bound to do, the justice said, noting specifically that a police officer may be fired for refusing to take a breathalyzer test and that the threat to impound Verduzco’s car if he would not consent to a search was not unlawful because a vehicle may be impounded pending the issuance of a search warrant.
The case is Quezada v. City of Los Angeles, 13 S.O.S. 86.
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