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Appeals court reverses ruling on search of Rancho Palos Verdes home

A jury had ordered an L.A. County sheriff's sergeant to pay damages to golfer Kim L. Johnson for the search of the house in a prostitution investigation targeting his parents.

March 14, 2009|Carol J. Williams

Did a sheriff's deputy violate the constitutional rights -- and derail the professional golf career -- of a Rancho Palos Verdes man when she raided his home in search of evidence to convict his parents of pimping and prostitution?

A U.S. District Court jury thought so two years ago when it ordered Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Angela Walton to pay $80,000 in damages to Kim L. Johnson and $100 to his aunt, Sun Min Lee, who was subjected to what the court then deemed an unreasonable intrusion. The court also hit Walton with a $260,000 bill for Johnson's attorney fees.

But a federal appeals court panel reversed that ruling Friday, persuaded that Walton had probable cause to search the home, which Johnson shared with his parents and aunt, in view of undercover reports that the parents' massage parlor was full of scantily clad "masseuses" and male customers wearing terry loincloths. And then there were the 400 condoms found at the office and $2.4 million in cash stuffed into shoe boxes at the home.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Walton had sufficient grounds to conclude that Johnson's home would yield the incriminating cash proving his parents were running a house of prostitution.

The ruling served to further restrict the federal courts' definition of what amounts to violation of the 4th Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure, which has already been limited in recent years by federal appeals courts. The decision also represents a victory for those who think the constitutional protection is excessively applied to exclude critical evidence in criminal cases.

U.S. District Judge S. James Otero had dismissed Walton's claim of qualified immunity from prosecution because her request for a search warrant failed to explain the Johnson home's connection to the suspected illegal activity at the Oriental Acupressure massage parlor.

The appeals court judges disagreed, citing Walton's extensive experience in investigating prostitution rings. They did concede that a better warrant application would have explicitly said such operations often hide their illegal proceeds at home instead of the office.

Johnson's parents, Wilford Johnson and Sun Hi Lee, served jail time for felony tax evasion after forfeiting the seized cash under a plea agreement with the Internal Revenue Service but are now free and living at the home in Rancho Palos Verdes, said Kim Johnson's attorney, Donald G. Norris.

Johnson and his aunt were never implicated in the prostitution investigation and filed suit under a civil rights statute, alleging that the unwarranted search of their residence tarnished his reputation and prevented his admission to the Professional Golfers' Assn. tour. It was in compensation for that professional setback that the jury awarded damages and attorneys fees to be paid by Walton.

The appeals court judges -- appointees of Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush and a visiting judge named to the 8th Circuit by President Johnson -- sent the case back to the District Court with an order to vacate the damage awards.

"We don't agree with the opinion, obviously," said Norris, who said his clients were weighing whether to ask the appeals court for another hearing.

Thomas C. Hurrell, the sergeant's attorney, said, "We are very pleased with the result, and we are happy on behalf of Sgt. Walton."

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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