In a setback for four police officers accused of vandalism in the so-called "39th and Dalton" incident, a judge ruled Wednesday that a homemade battering ram that allegedly caused substantial damage to two apartments in the case can be used as evidence in the officers' upcoming trial.
The ruling by Municipal Judge Larry Paul Fidler sets the stage for a future court battle over police officers' rights and led to criticism from Fidler about the way the Los Angeles Police Department "does business" in investigating complaints of officer wrongdoing.
Because of the department's practice of pursuing joint criminal and administrative investigations against accused officers, the judge said, arriving at his decision was made more difficult.
"The LAPD and the Police Commission might want to reconsider how they want to conduct these investigations," Fidler said as he made the ruling on use of the ram. "Perhaps a new procedure is necessary."
In his ruling, Fidler rejected an argument by the lawyer for Officer Charles Wilson that the ram should not be admissible because in obtaining it, police internal affairs investigators and Wilson's commanding officer failed to apprise him of his rights under California's so-called Peace Officers Bill of Rights.
Under that law, which raised a storm of controversy when it was approved by the Legislature in 1976, officers who stand to be disciplined by their departments as a result of an interrogation by internal affairs investigators or their commanding officers must be told beforehand that they may remain silent or have a representative present.
The law then goes on to make an exception for criminal investigations, even though information obtained in such investigations can result in the officer being disciplined.
Fidler, in ruling that the ram was obtained during the execution of a criminal rather than an administrative search warrant and is therefore admissible, said the Legislature clearly did not intend the Peace Officers Bill of Rights to give officers in criminal cases more rights than the average citizen.
Fidler had ruled Tuesday that the investigators did not violate Wilson's rights under the U.S. Constitution and did not coerce him into leading them to an underground storm drain in South Los Angeles where the ram, which he had made in his garage, had been stashed.
Wilson's lawyer, Paul R. DePasquale said he will challenge Fidler's ruling in an appeal if his client is convicted. He agreed with Fidler that the Peace Officers Bill of Rights is "vague and ambiguous" and needs to be clarified.
DePasquale also agreed that the Police Department's practice of conducting joint criminal and administrative investigations against officers muddies the water.
"It's the police officer who suffers and not the Police Department who suffers from this confusion," DePasquale said.
Michael P. Stone, general counsel of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a police union, and the lawyer for one of Wilson's co-defendants, was not pleased with Fidler's ruling but praised the judge for "making every effort . . . to reach a fair decision."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher Darden, whose arguments Fidler sided with, said he was "extremely pleased."
"It means we will be able to go forward and present a full and fair portrayal of what happened at 39th and Dalton," Darden said.
The Aug. 1, 1988, incident involved raids on four apartments in the 3900 block of South Dalton Avenue. About 80 officers with search warrants went to the residences looking for drugs.
Residents complained, however, that the officers instead tore apart the interiors of the dwellings, destroying appliances and other contents. The damage was so bad that the next day the Red Cross offered disaster aid to the residents.
Police at first told reporters that the damage had been caused by gang members, but Police Chief Daryl F. Gates months later contended that officers had caused at least some of the "excessive" damage and ordered 38 of them to face disciplinary actions.
Charges of criminal vandalism and conspiracy to commit vandalism were later filed against Wilson, Capt. Thomas D. Elfmont, Sgt. Charles (Ted) Spicer and Officer Todd Parrick. Wilson also was charged with obstructing and delaying a police investigation.
Times staff writer Nancy Hill-Holtzman contributed to this story.