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Abuse Case Settled; Judge Rejects Deal

Court: Torrance agrees to pay $480,000 in a lawsuit filed by one white, two black teens who allege police harassment. But the jurist refuses to accept the pact.

June 27, 1997|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

The city of Torrance agreed Thursday to pay $480,000 to settle a high-profile police misconduct case, but later in the day a Los Angeles federal judge refused to accept the settlement, according to lawyers for Torrance and the plaintiffs.

The unusual development occurred just as it seemed that a three-year battle between Torrance and three Los Angeles youths and their families was about to be resolved.

On June 12, a Los Angeles federal jury awarded $245,000 in compensatory and punitive damages to the three young men. They had sued the Torrance Police Department--long criticized by some minorities for unduly harsh policing practices--for civil rights violations stemming from a "frightening and humiliating search" in May 1994.

According to papers filed in the case and testimony at trial, two officers stopped Nicholas Cramer, who is white, and two black friends, Daniel Mason and Lohren Price, late at night. The incident occurred after the boys, all 17 at the time, had seen a movie to celebrate graduating from the prestigious Harvard Westlake School in Studio City.

The young men said the officers ordered them out of the car at gunpoint, patted them down, squeezed their testicles, ransacked their car and held them for an hour before releasing them. "The search of the vehicle produced nothing of an unlawful or evidentiary nature," stressed attorney Howard R. Price, who represented Cramer and Mason, in court papers.

Lohren Price (no relation to the attorney), who was driving his mother's car, was cited for an inoperative turn signal and failing to wear a seat belt. Cramer, who was in the back seat, also was cited for failing to wear a seat belt. The citations were later dismissed in juvenile traffic court, according to court papers.

The day after the incident, Mason, whose mother, Cheryl Mason, is a highly regarded Los Angeles attorney, filed a complaint with the Torrance Police Department. Unsatisfied with the results of an internal department investigation, the three young men sued in October 1994. The lawsuit said that their federal civil rights had been violated and that the city "maintained or permitted an official policy or custom of permitting the occurrence of the type of wrongs" alleged in the suit.

The plaintiffs maintained that the only reason they were stopped was because they were an interracial trio.

After a contentious trial, a racially mixed jury ordered that each of the three young men be awarded $37,500 in punitive damages from Officer Steve D'Angou and the same amount from Officer Lewis Kramer. In addition, the officers were ordered to pay $5,000 each in compensatory damages to Price and $2,500 each in such damages to Cramer and Mason, yielding total damages of $245,000.

Later the two sides entered into settlement negotiations. On Thursday morning, Torrance officials agreed to pay $480,000 to cover the judgment, attorney fees and costs. Part of the extra money was a bonus to plaintiffs in exchange for agreeing to vacate their judgment and the punitive damage award.

Vacating the award--effectively eliminating it from the public record--was the linchpin of the deal for Torrance, according to Senior Deputy City Atty. Robert D. Acciani. For many years, localities routinely paid punitive damages awarded against police officers, rather than compelling the officers themselves to pay plaintiffs. However, in 1994, a landmark federal appeals court decision held that if a city indemnified officers in such situations, that could be used as evidence in future cases that city officials had ratified wrongful conduct and those officials could be liable for damages themselves.

Municipal officials were stunned by that ruling, saying it left them with two bad choices: facing the ire of officers if they did not indemnify them, or facing the risk of increased liability if they did indemnify the officers. Vacating the jury's verdict of punitive damages would have freed Torrance from that fear.

On Thursday afternoon, plaintiffs' attorney Price said he was willing to vacate the judgment because "I have come to the conclusion that the best thing I can do is to make the entity pay as much as possible. If anything, that will lead to a change in policy."

But on Thursday evening, Price and Torrance official Acciani said U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts had balked at the deal because he would not go along with vacating the judgment.

"The judge, philosophically, thinks it is not in the public interest to vacate a judgment against the officers in this case or to absolve Torrance from making the decision as to whether or not it will pay the punitive damages," Price said. "It's the first time I've ever had a judge intercede like this, but I'm not angry at him. He certainly has the right to make this decision. The judge has concluded that the societal interests outweigh the individual interests of the plaintiffs."

Letts, through one of his law clerks, declined comment.

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