HUNTINGTON BEACH — Add this colorful seaside city to the list of alleged gamblers, drug pushers, arsonists and extortionists who have been accused of violating the federal government's anti-racketeering act.
A federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled that Huntington Beach can indeed be sued as a "racketeer" for allegedly operating an illegal speed trap.
In a ruling made public Wednesday and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson said that Seal Beach lawyer Ernest J. Franceschi Jr. has sufficient grounds to allege that an illegal speed trap can amount to extortion--getting money through threats or misuse of authority. The city denies that it operated a speed trap.
Franceschi, who said he was caught three times in a Huntington Beach speed trap on Pacific Coast Highway, is seeking $60 million in damages from the city. His novel suit uses the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, as its legal tool. The case is believed to be the first in which a speed trap has been ruled a legitimate issue under the anti-racketeering law.
"To the best of our knowledge, there's never been anything like this," said a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department in Washington. "A speed trap. This \o7 is\f7 an unusual RICO case."
The RICO Act was passed by Congress as a way of attacking organized crime. Most RICO cases involve persons accused of gangland-style activities, such as drug rings. The federal law defines "racketeering activity" as dealing in narcotics, murder, kidnap, gambling, arson, robbery, bribery or extortion.
UCLA Law School Associate Dean Norman Abrams, who teaches classes on RICO law, said that the speed-trap suit "is what I'd call one of the esoteric uses of the RICO law." Abrams noted that some lawyers contend that the federal anti-racketeering law has already been extended unwisely into various civil cases.
Abrams said Wilson's ruling does not widely expand the reach of the anti-racketeering law but obviously does expand RICO to cover speed-trap allegations. "The real issue here is whether speed traps are extortion," Abrams said.
Franceschi's suit claims that Huntington Beach, by allegedly using an illegal speed trap on Pacific Coast Highway, was guilty of "extorting" money from motorists. The city, which has repeatedly said that no speed trap exists, urged Wilson to dismiss the suit shortly after it was filed March 20.
But in his ruling in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Wilson said: "Plaintiff (Franceschi) asserts that the wrongful use of the speed traps to obtain money from unsuspecting persons amounts to extortion. . . . The court finds that plaintiff has sufficiently pleaded an enterprise and a pattern of racketeering activity as required by RICO."
While agreeing that the anti-racketeering law could be used in the lawsuit, Wilson ruled that Franceschi's action had not cited the proper section of the law. He therefore dismissed the suit on technical grounds but gave Franceschi 10 days to change the wording of the suit and thus make it acceptable.
Franceschi, in an interview on Wednesday, said he can quickly comply with the ruling and have the suit once more active in federal court. "I'm very pleased," he said. "Basically, the judge has said this suit can be maintained under RICO. The way things are lining up, I think we're on solid ground. But we're quite a way from trial. I imagine the city will appeal this."
City Atty. Gail Hutton was not available to comment on Wilson's ruling.
But police officials insisted Wednesday, as they have in the past, that Franceschi will fail to prove that a speed trap has ever existed in Huntington Beach.
"We work radar on that stretch of (Pacific Coast) highway, and we have for many, many years because of the number of bad accidents there," Police Capt. J. Barry Price said. "But it's no speed trap."
There are three speed limits on Pacific Coast Highway, between Warner Avenue and Main Street, in Huntington Beach. At the edge of the city limits, the permissible highway speed is 55 m.p.h. It then drops to 45 m.p.h. and to 35 m.p.h. as the highway nears Main Street.
State law defines a "speed trap" as being a portion of a highway where radar enforcement is used and which has a speed limit not justified by an engineering and traffic survey made within the past five years. Franceschi's suit contends that no such traffic-engineering survey has been done in the past 10 years on the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway between Warner Avenue and Main Street. It is that section where Franceschi was cited for speeding three times in the past two years.
Franceschi said that all three of his speeding citations were dismissed in Orange County courts. He said the city could not produce proof of a traffic-engineering survey justifying use of radar along Pacific Coast Highway. That lack of such proof shows that an illegal speed trap exists, Franceschi says.
Barry said that such a survey has been made, but he said he did not know the exact date.