A federal judge Monday threw out most of a lawsuit that sought to force Los Angeles City Council members to pay police brutality damages out of their own pockets, but added a warning that there appears to be "something wrong with the process" by which the city pays police-misconduct judgments.
In a victory for the city, U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts dismissed key elements of the case, specifically including the attempt to collect damages from council members personally for financially protecting police officers who shot four robbers in Sunland in 1990, killing three.
Letts also released the city government from liability in the suit, leaving only former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and nine officers as defendants.
The same shooting is now the subject of an investigation by a federal grand jury, trying to meet a Feb. 12 statute of limitations deadline, into whether the officers should be charged with violating the robbers' civil rights.
Lawyers for the city and the 10 council members named as defendants hailed Letts' ruling as an affirmation of "qualified immunity," the legal principal that shields lawmakers from responsibility in lawsuits for their official actions.
"This is a very important decision," said Skip Miller, a private lawyer who was hired by the council to fight this case.
The judge sided with Miller's argument that the council members properly considered the facts of the Sunland case and then made good-faith decisions to use city funds to pay judgments imposed on the police officers. This was within the council's authority under a state law specifically authorizing city governments to make such payments for municipal employees sued over actions they took on the job, he ruled.
Letts said he did not have enough information in the case to demonstrate that anyone in City Hall acted improperly. He warned, however, that the issue of shielding police officers from court judgments for misconduct probably will continue to haunt the city.
"Sooner or later," Letts said, "someone has to begin to look and to wonder about the effect of never having any of these officers pay."
A history of such cases shows that the council always went along with recommendations of the Police Department and the city attorney, he said.
"In this case, that decision may have been sound," Letts said. "But eventually someone is going to question it and the inference can be drawn that there's something wrong with the process."
In the case, it was alleged that the city had fostered a policy of police brutality by repeatedly indemnifying officers sued for excessive force.
The suit was brought in the name of Johanna Trevino, now 4, who had not yet been born when her father and two other robbers were fatally shot by members of the Police Department's elite Special Investigations Section, or SIS, in February, 1990, as they fled a McDonald's restaurant in Sunland.
Police said the fleeing robbers pointed pistols at them, but the weapons turned out to be air guns.
Critics alleged that the SIS officers had followed the men, knowing they were probably going to commit a crime, and deliberately allowed them to go through with the robbery so they could be taken in the act.
Alleging that the slain men had been ambushed and murdered by police, other surviving relatives filed a federal suit and in 1992 won a jury verdict for slightly more than $44,000 in punitive damages.
In a rare gesture, the jury specifically asked that Gates and the sued officers pay the money out of their own pockets instead of having taxpayers foot the bill, as is common in such cases.
But the City Council voted to cover the costs anyway, and attorney Stephen Yagman, who specializes in police-misconduct cases, sued again, this time on behalf of the Trevino girl. In that suit, it was claimed that by repeatedly indemnifying officers in such cases, the council had encouraged wrongful police shootings and had deprived her of her father.
In the 2 1/2 years since, the complicated case has wended its way from federal court in Los Angeles to the U.S. Supreme Court and back as city lawyers have sought to have it dismissed. All along, they argued that council members could not be sued for their official actions.
In what appeared to be a key victory for Yagman, a federal appeals court held that the council members could be considered personally liable for some actions, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal.
The case was closely watched by officials concerned about the potential for personal liability, drawing City Atty. James Hahn to one hearing and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky--a former council member and defendant--to Monday's proceeding.