Police Scandal Could
Mean Financial
Ruin For LA
By Michael Miller
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles could wind up being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars over its worst police scandal in 60 years and one prominent attorney is even predicting financial ruin for America's second largest city.
Other lawyers agree that civil rights lawsuits stemming from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wrongful convictions based on planted evidence and perjured testimony by rogue cops could be costly for the city. But they doubt that its coffers are about to be sucked dry.
The scandal plaguing the Los Angeles Police Department has so far led to a judge overturning the convictions of 22 defendants -- and that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Los Angeles County District attorney Gil Garcetti said earlier this week he expected to ask for 30 to 40 more cases to be overturned in the near future, while Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks has called for close to 100 cases to be overturned. Parks has also asked Garcetti to prosecute at least three officers.
The scandal, which broke last September, is the worst to hit the city since the 1930s when Los Angeles was nationally notorious for its corrupt politicians and dishonest cops. The new scandal centers on the department's Rampart Division and its anti-gang unit called CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums).
It was sparked by the revelations of rogue officer Rafael Perez, 32, who pleaded guilty to stealing eight pounds of cocaine from a police evidence locker. He agreed to testify against his colleagues for a reduced sentence.
The first prisoner to have his conviction overturned, in September, was Javier Francisco Ovando, 22.
Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler, after hearing that Perez and his partner Nino Durden handcuffed Ovando, shot him in the head, planted a rifle on him and then arrested him for assaulting them, described their actions as "attempted murder." Ovando, who will be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, had served three years of a 23-year sentence for crimes he did not commit.
Already, half a dozen lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District and Los Angeles Superior courts seeking more than $100 million in damages for claimants.
Prominent civil rights lawyer Stephen Yagman, who has already filed a number of lawsuits connected to the scandal, said it was impossible to say how much the city will be forced to pay out.
"It's incalculable. It is impossible to put a figure on it. Trying to figure out what this will cost the city is like trying to contemplate infinity. In this case, I think infinity runs into hundreds of millions of dollars. I think it will bankrupt the city," Yagman told Reuters Thursday.
But Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said that while the lawsuits might eventually add up to hundreds of millions of dollars, that did not mean that the claimants would receive all the money they were asking for.
She cited the case of Rodney King, the black motorist beaten by police in an incident that was videotaped and horrified the world. King sued the city and in 1994 the city agreed to pay him $3.8 million, although he had asked for many times that amount.
Levenson also noted that many of those wrongly accused were self-described gang members who, although innocent of the crimes they were convicted of, were "not exactly productive members of society" and therefore were less likely to receive a great deal of sympathy from juries.
The scandal recently spread beyond the Rampart Division to other divisions in the city. Yagman, who specializes in police misconduct cases, forced the District Attorney's office to hand over a list of all the cases that are now under suspicion of being tainted by corrupt cops.
The list contained 9,485 cases, about 5,000 of which were handled by 14 of the 22 Rampart Division officers who have been fired or suspended since the probe began. The remainder of the cases involved 13 officers from other divisions who are alleged to have engaged in misconduct, said Yagman.


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