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U.S. Judge Narrows False-Arrest Lawsuit

June 18, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal court judge has tentatively ruled that an Oxnard man wrongly convicted of murder cannot sue Santa Barbara prosecutors for false arrest or malicious prosecution.

But the judge let stand allegations that prosecutors violated Efren Cruz's civil rights before and after his 1997 murder conviction.

Six months ago, Cruz, 27, filed a civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeking about $120 million in damages from police and prosecutors.

Cruz spent four years in state prison before a judge ruled that credible evidence suggests another man pulled the trigger during a gang-related shooting in downtown Santa Barbara in January 1997.

After his release, Cruz sued Santa Barbara County Dist. Atty. Thomas W. Sneddon and three senior prosecutors for conspiracy and malicious prosecution.

The lawsuit alleges that prosecutors and Santa Barbara Police Department officers conducted a negligent investigation and withheld evidence favorable to Cruz, including witness statements that indicated another man was the shooter.

In February, lawyers representing Santa Barbara County filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that prosecutors were immune from liability and could not be sued for their actions during the case.

In her tentative ruling Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper agreed that the district attorney and his deputies could not be sued for malicious prosecution or false arrest.

Cooper narrowed the scope of Cruz's lawsuit by dismissing several additional claims against the county.

But a summary of her ruling shows she also found Cruz could sue prosecutors for conspiracy.

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