A federal judge refused Monday to dismiss a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles by trucker Reginald O. Denny and three other 1992 riot victims, clearing the way for a trial that may begin later this year.
Denny, Wanda Harris, Takao Hirata and Fidel Lopez contend that Los Angeles police left them at the mercy of their assailants in the neighborhood surrounding Florence and Normandie avenues during the early stages of the riot because the area is predominantly black.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 9, 1994 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Denny suit defendants--A story in Feb. 1 editions of The Times said that former Los Angeles Police Lt. Michael Moulin is one of several defendants in a federal court suit filed against the city by trucker Reginald O. Denny and three others. In fact, he is not one of the defendants. The Times regrets the error.
Harris' 15-year-old son was shot and killed a block from the Florence and Normandie intersection, a flash point of the civil unrest. Denny, Hirata and Lopez were beaten in the neighborhood.
U.S. District Judge William Matthew Byrne Jr. granted a motion by Assistant City Atty. Annette Keller to dismiss claims by the plaintiffs in which they allege that they were deprived of their constitutional right to due process of law.
However, the judge said all four plaintiffs can proceed with their claim that they were denied equal protection of the law. To prevail in the suit, the plaintiffs must prove that the police pulled out of the area because most of the residents were African American.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 ruled that police departments have no specific duty to provide the public with adequate protective services. However, it also ruled that the state may not selectively deny protective services to certain "disfavored minorities" without violating equal protection of the law.
"It's a great day for the plaintiffs," said Denny's attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. "This case is real important for everyone," because what happened to Denny during the riot showed that anyone could be injured because of governmental actions based on race, Cochran said.
Byrne based his decision partly on a 1989 Ohio federal court decision in which white residents of Canton were allowed to sue the city based on claims that police were failing to protect them because they lived in a primarily black area, said Constance L. Rice, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of three public interest law groups assisting Cochran.
"If you have discrimination based on policy, it doesn't matter who the victim is," Rice said. "You have to look at what happened (during the riots), and why it happened."
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center also joined in a brief supporting the plaintiffs' contention that their suit should be allowed to proceed.
Asked if he found it ironic that his suit was based on a statute designed to benefit minorities, Denny said he felt he was entitled to use the law because the police had fled the area. Denny said he and his friends find a good deal of what goes on in court perplexing.
"We're just a bunch of truck drivers," he said. "The speed limit is 55 m.p.h. The only law I know is red lights."
The defendants in the case include the city, former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and former Deputy Chief Matthew Hunt, who headed the department's South Bureau during the riots. The other defendants are Deputy Chief Ronald A. Frankle; Deputy Chief Ronald C. Banks, now chief of staff to Police Chief Willie L. Williams; Paul Jefferson, who was a ranking official in the South Bureau at the time of the riots and is now the chief of police in Modesto, and former LAPD Lt. Michael Moulin, now retired on a stress pension.
A similar case on behalf of Denny and two of the three plaintiffs in the federal suit is pending in Los Angeles Superior Court. Four other cases filed by riot victims were dismissed by Superior Court judges, who agreed with the city attorney's position that the city is immune from such suits.
However, none of the suits that were dismissed contained allegations that there was racially discriminatory deployment of police resources.