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L.A. to Pay Dozens of People Held in Skid Row Sweeps

City settles civil rights case for $75,000, agrees to detain only those suspected of crimes.

June 12, 2003|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The city of Los Angeles has agreed to pay $75,000 in damages to 58 people improperly arrested in November when law enforcement agents swept through downtown's skid row looking for parole violators.

City officials also said they would refrain from rounding up low-income and homeless people unless there is a reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime. The agreement is part of a settlement reached with civil rights attorneys who sued the city on behalf of those taken into custody and other skid row residents who might have been caught up in similar sweeps.

A U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction against the city in April after the class action lawsuit alleged that police were violating residents' constitutional rights. The court must still approve the terms of the settlement, which could be amended pending legal challenges to a separate federal suit over parolee searches.

Skid row, a 50-square-block area of squalid street encampments, shelters and single-occupancy hotels, is a key target of Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton's effort to vigorously enforce quality-of-life crimes.

Over two days in November, Los Angeles police and the California Department of Corrections conducted a joint sweep dubbed "Operation Enough." According to the suit, more than 200 people were arrested on streets and in hotels, 84 of them for alleged parole violations.

The suit contended that police had warrants for only 26 of the parolees and that there was no reason to detain the others. According to the suit, the lead plaintiff, Donald Fitzgerald, was rousted from his hotel bed and handcuffed while police threw his personal belongings and food from his refrigerator on the floor. He was arrested by the LAPD and charged with being a felon in possession of a knife -- an eating utensil -- and spent six days in custody before being released without further charge, according to the suit.

Carol Sobel, a private attorney who joined with the American Civil Liberties Union in bringing the suit, said that although the settlement is a victory for her clients, skid row residents are likely to remain targets of other police sweeps.

"I hope it makes a difference," Sobel said. "The police retain the right to question and do consensual stuff on skid row, but the presence of police in an area where people are poor and homeless limits their consent to a great degree."

The $75,000 will be distributed according to a still-to-be determined formula based on time spent in jail and any other losses. Assistant City Atty. Paul Paquette said the city would abide by the settlement but alleged that the Corrections Department provided names, photos and addresses to make the arrests but failed to give the city documents to support the cases.

"We did use the authority of the LAPD to detain people so the CDC could take appropriate actions. But I think there is some sense that we're picking up the tab for them," Paquette said.

Corrections Department spokesman Russ Heimerich countered that his agency supplied the city with all of the information available and said he wished the city had not rushed to settle the case.

"We hold that we conducted legal and lawful parole searches," Heimerich said. "We can't speak for what individual LAPD teams might have done. Their decision to settle comes as a surprise given that in fighting the lawsuit they would be successful and we were ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with them."

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