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What if Cops Cross the Line? : Where do you turn if you think the law has done you harm? Abuse court. But be warned: You can't use a lawyer and your chances of winning are pretty slim.

July 25, 1994|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every other Tuesday night, they gather in classrooms at Holman United Methodist Church near Downtown Los Angeles, in search of help, or at least hope.

Many are frightened, some face a language barrier, few understand the nuances of the American legal system--but all believe that misconduct by law enforcement agencies has caused them harm.

Thinking they have nowhere else to turn, they attend the Police Abuse Small Claims Court Assistance Clinic, looking for advice, redress, or simply somebody to whom they can tell their story.

The law students and volunteer lawyers who staff the clinic teach people how to sue police agencies for damages in Small Claims Court, where the maximum award is $5,000 and lawyers aren't permitted to represent clients.

One of the first things they tell these clients is the chance of winning their case, or any money: slim.

But lawyer Ronald Kaye, a founder of the clinic, said winning is not the only issue. A big part of the clinic's goal is "to empower people to stand up for their rights"--even though they may lose their case," he said.

Recent clients have included:

* A woman who claimed she was sexually fondled after being handcuffed at 3 a.m. by a sheriff's deputy who pulled her car over for "no reason at all."

* A woman who said she and her two daughters, 9 and 10, were traumatized by transit officers in the middle of the night after a fare dispute on a Gardena bus. She said she ended up in the hospital with a dislocated shoulder because of the incident.

* A man who claimed that a high-speed police chase of a teen-ager driving a stolen car caused a crash into his Bellflower home, nearly killing him and his wife as they slept at 3 a.m.

* A Los Angeles couple who claimed that their trip to a police station for first aid--after the woman hit her husband on the head with her purse and drew blood--led to the wife's arrest for battery, mistreatment by officers, denial of medicine for her severe health problems and an $8,000 hospital bill they can't afford. When asked by a clinic volunteer why they went to the police in the first place, the husband said he had been "taught from childhood" that "the police are who you turn to whenever you're in trouble."

Despite the odds, many decide to pursue their cases because, as the Los Angeles couple put it, they want to "stand up for themselves" and "go on record" about how they were treated in the hope that others will not be treated the same way.

Each client is assigned a volunteer counselor who interviews the person and decides whether the case is appropriate for Small Claims Court. If so, the counselor helps file documents, gather evidence and coaches clients on how to present the case in court.

About 95 people have gone to the clinic for advice since it opened in November. Organizers say about 50 of these clients are being prepared to file claims. Of the four who've done so already, only one has won.

That was Dorothy Dotson, 70, whose apartment was mistakenly broken into by police who went to the wrong address in a drug raid. She was caught literally with her pants down, and says she was forced to remain that way while the intruders searched. A judge awarded her $5,000. The city attorney's office has announced it will appeal in Superior Court.

Michael Brennan, clinical law professor at the USC Law Center, said the possibility of such appeals is a problem with the clinic.

"It sounds like a good idea," he said, "but the reality is that if anyone wins against the police in Small Claims Court, the city attorney will merely appeal the decision in Superior Court."

And in that court, Brennan said, "You need an attorney to represent you. The whole point of Small Claims Court for these people was because they couldn't get attorneys in the first place. So they are back to where they started. That's why I don't see this clinic as any kind of real solution."

Karol Heppe, executive director of the abuse-monitoring group Police Watch and founder of the clinic with Kaye, disagrees. She said a Pomona attorney has offered to represent Dotson, without cost, in Superior Court during the appeal.

And as more clinic clients win in Small Claims Court, Heppe hopes, more attorneys will volunteer to represent them at no cost if the city appeals. Perhaps then, she said, the trend of appealing these cases will be reversed.

Thomas Hokinson, a senior assistant city attorney, represents the Los Angeles Police Department in cases involving personal injury and property damage. He said that suing the police in Small Claims Court is "not a new concept; it's been going on for years. (The clinic) is just an organized effort to get more people to use the court." He has no problem with that, he said. But the city will appeal the Dotson case because "we do not believe the facts . . . justify an award of $5,000 to that claimant."

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