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City Officials Liable to Pay Damages, High Court Rules

October 12, 1994|DAVID G. SAVAGE and LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — In a setback for the Los Angeles City Council in a dispute over a Sunland police shooting, the Supreme Court on Monday let stand a ruling that elected lawmakers can be forced to pay damages personally for official actions, such as rescuing officers from financial judgments in police brutality suits.

Without comment or dissent, the justices refused to hear the Los Angeles city attorney's argument that local lawmakers are entitled to "absolute immunity" from such damage suits.

In March, a federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that, while legislators cannot be sued for passing laws, they can be held personally liable for decisions that are "administrative or executive in nature." The decision cleared the way for Los Angeles City Council members to be sued for using city funds to pay court damages assessed for brutality against former Police Chief Daryl Gates and nine police officers.

The decision stemmed from a 1990 incident in which a team of officers from the elite Special Investigations Section gunned down four robbers who had just held up a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland. Four relatives of the robbers sued Gates and the officers, contending that the police shot them without provocation.

The high court did not issue a written ruling endorsing the appeals court decision, nor has the suit against the Los Angeles council members gone to trial. Still, Monday's court action puts lawmakers on notice that they have to pay from their own pockets if their actions violate constitutional rights.

"I think this is going to have a long-term impact on governing bodies," said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who voted for the payment and is a defendant in the suit. Elected officials will have to think twice before getting involved in volatile disputes, such as police brutality cases, he said.

Attorney Stephen Yagman--who represents the plaintiffs in the Sunland suit and has been involved in numerous cases against the LAPD--cheered the court's action.

"This is the most significant police brutality decision ever rendered because it's the first one in which elected officials have been put personally at risk for police brutality," he said in a phone interview from New York.

"It's the first decision that will provide a real incentive for the political hacks who run the city of Los Angeles to get off their butts and do something about the awful LAPD."

"They are trapped," Yagman said of the 10 Los Angeles City Council members facing the damage suit. "They have ratified a policy of using excessive force. Now the noose is around their collective neck, and it's getting tighter."

In the Sunland case, a jury handed down a $44,000 verdict against Gates and the nine officers. In reaction, the City Council voted to pay the damages for Gates and the officers. Yagman then filed a new suit arguing that the council's action amounted to condoning police brutality and asking for unspecified damages from the council members personally.

Although he was an outspoken critic of Gates, Yaroslavsky called the incident "a classic case where an officer should not have been asked to" pay punitive damages.

The police became involved in a shootout with armed robbers fleeing the scene of a crime, Yaroslavsky said. "What could have been the malice?"

At the time, members of the controversial SIS squad said they refrained from interrupting the robbery for fear of jeopardizing a manager being held hostage in the restaurant. Critics contend that the SIS had tracked the four robbers for some time, holding back to build a stronger case against them.

"It's a tough call," Yaroslavsky said. "Do you go in and try to break it up and in the process, risk women and children? Or do you let them carry out the robbery in the hopes they won't hurt anybody? . . . It's one of the reasons I'm not a police officer."

The suit is awaiting trial. City attorneys hoped to have it dismissed in preliminary motions but instead have suffered a series of stunning reversals.

In general, the Supreme Court has said that lawmakers are entitled to "absolute immunity . . . in their legislative functions." But in a pair of rulings siding with Yagman, federal judges in California have concluded that lawmakers are not immune from damage claims in certain circumstances.

First, U. S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts in Los Angeles said that the 10 council members who voted to shield Gates and the other officers were not "dealing with legislation which will affect the public at large," but rather were taking one side in a legal dispute over police brutality. By doing so, the council members could be "giving complete license for bad-faith acts" by the police, the judge said, and therefore they can be held liable for their actions.

In March, the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction covers the entire West, affirmed Letts' decision and ruled that lawmakers are not entitled to "a cloak of absolute immunity" when they "perform an administrative, not a legislative, act."

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