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10 Deputies May Face Trial in Labor Dispute

Judge warns that they and nine union officials may be held in contempt of court if they violated an order to end a sickout over contract impasse.

October 22, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Ten Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies found themselves on the other side of the law Tuesday when a judge warned that they would face fines and jail if they violated his order to return to work during a monthlong wildcat strike.

Orange County Superior Court Judge John M. Watson ordered the 10 deputies plus nine officers of the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs to return to court Dec. 8 for a possible trial on whether they should be held in contempt of court. Seven of the nine union officials are also deputies.

Watson issued a temporary restraining order against the union and its leadership on Oct. 1, barring further sickouts. But hundreds of deputies called in sick in the days that followed. Since the contempt proceedings began last week, most deputies have returned to work.

Watson ruled that the strike threatens public safety and is illegal.

Outside court, union President Roy Burns said all of the deputies had doctors' notes that excused them from work for that day. He blamed the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for failing to give deputies a pay raise, and threatened to put a candidate up against Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke in the next election.

"We believe we are being harassed," said Burns, who is among the 19 people facing prosecution on a charge of contempt of court.

Ten of the deputies who are facing proceedings are assigned to the Beverly Hills Courthouse, which was temporarily closed Oct. 15 because all the nonsupervisory deputies called in sick. Seven others, plus two civilians, represent the union. They face as much as five days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Although named as defendants, union officials denied any role in the sickout. They have reached an impasse with county labor negotiators over their expired contract.

Deputies are seeking a 3% annual pay raise in each of the next three years.

Last week, lawyers for the county asked Watson to fine deputies as much as $1,500 for failing to follow the court order. But the judge decided Tuesday to move forward with more serious contempt-of-court proceedings.

To get a conviction, Watson said, county lawyers must prove that his order was valid, that deputies knew that the order had been issued and that they willingly disobeyed it.

No one would speculate on how such a conviction would affect a deputy's career.

Sheriff Lee Baca has disciplined 500 deputies by either docking their salaries or suspending them, a sheriff's official said.

All 10 of the nonsupervisory deputies assigned to the Beverly Hills Courthouse called in sick Oct. 1, the date that Watson signed the temporary restraining order barring the union from further sickouts, according to court documents.

The same 10 deputies were absent again Oct. 15, forcing officials to close the courthouse until four deputies were reassigned from the Airport Courthouse.

Retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Cecil Mills, a security consultant for the court, wrote in court papers that, although the courthouse had opened, the replacement deputies had been unfamiliar with the building's security requirements.

"The security of the lockup facility, likely escape routes and evacuation corridors were not appropriately provided for," Mills wrote.

"In the event of an additional emergency or natural disaster, it is my view that the persons in the building would have been at risk," he continued.

In addition, Mills said, there was a bomb threat at the Central Arraignment Court at the Men's Central Jail on Oct. 15, forcing the evacuation of the building, the closing of streets around the jail and further delaying the transportation of inmates to the courts.

"Based upon my experience as a peace officer, judge and security officer, it is inconceivable to me that these events are the result of anything other than an organized work action," wrote Mills, who was a marshal before becoming a judge.

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