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Guards' Status in Question : Legal Snarl Seen for Airport Panel

May 28, 1987|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Convictions stemming from arrests at Burbank Airport may be challenged and the airport could face liability suits because airport police lacked authority since 1982, an attorney for a former officer charged.

"If the position the authority has taken is correct, then arrests made by officers at the airport . . . were improper and the liability is staggering," said attorney Sylvia E. Kellison, whose Santa Monica firm represents many law-enforcement employee groups as well as the former airport security officer, who was fired. "There might be liability for false arrest and violation of constitutional rights."

She said Tuesday that lawsuits could also challenge the propriety of security officers drawing their firearms, injuring, detaining or interrogating a suspect, issuing tickets and carrying batons.

She said that, in many instances, they would be legally authorized to undertake these actions as peace officers but not as private security guards.

Kellison was reacting to a decision Friday by the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority to strip security officers of their powers to carry guns and make arrests after officials said they discovered a crucial error in a 1982 state law intended to permit the airport to hire a private law-enforcement force.

Victor J. Gill, community-relations manager for the airport authority, said of Kellison's remarks: "That's something for the lawyers to work on if it comes to that. . . . We haven't had anyone come forward challenging the cases."

The problem arose because the authority contracts with Lockheed Air Terminal Inc. to run the airport. Because state law prohibits private companies from appointing law-enforcement officers, airport officials had a bill passed in 1982 that gave the airport authority the power to hire private peace officers.

It was discovered last year, however, that the law did not apply to Burbank Airport's peace officers because they work for Lockheed and are therefore not directly employed by the airport authority, as specified in the legislation, Gill said.

This situation was brought to the officials' attention when Kellison challenged the dismissal of peace officer Michael Ontiveros of San Fernando in May, 1986.

Ontiveros, who went to work at the airport in April, 1983, was dismissed after an incident at a bar near the airport. According to Richard Vacar, manager of airport affairs, Ontiveros was dancing "in a lewd manner" and was asked to leave by the bar's manager, who threatened to call authorities.

"The officer, in turn, pulled out his badge and said, 'I am the authorities', " Vacar said.

Kellison disputed that account, contending that Ontiveros merely told the bartender he was a law-enforcement officer and would be available if any problems arose.

Ontiveros was suspended April 26, 1986, and fired six days later, Kellison said. He was never given a hearing or shown documents with specific allegations against him, she said. Gill declined to discuss the Ontiveros case.

Kellison charged in Superior Court in Los Angeles last August that Ontiveros had been denied his due-process rights to a hearing under the state peace officers' procedural bill of rights. She sought his reinstatement, retroactive pay, damages for wrongful dismissal and a court stipulation that other airport security officers were covered by the state peace officers' bill of rights.

The airport authority responded that the peace officers' bill of rights did not apply to Ontiveros because he was employed by Lockheed, a private firm, Kellison said. This prompted her to question the legality of Lockheed employing peace officers under the 1982 law.

At this point, the airport authority sought to remedy what Vacar called "an incredible oversight" by having state Sen. Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale), who sponsored the 1982 legislation, submit an amendment to the measure to permit Lockheed to hire the peace officers and maintain the status quo. But the amendment was defeated last week in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Kellison, who is still pursuing Ontiveros' appeal of his dismissal, criticized the airport authority for waiting a year to take action after learning that their law-enforcement officers apparently lacked the legal authority to make arrests and issue tickets.

Gill responded: "The authority was seeking to address the situation and did not see any reason to think the status was radically changed until a remedy was denied" in the Legislature.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires the airport to retain peace officers to enforce regulations against passengers boarding aircraft with weapons and to perform other law-enforcement duties.

Four off-duty Burbank police officers have now been hired temporarily at $34.75 an hour to work the two security checkpoints leading to passenger gates.

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