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L.A. City Council weighs $4.5-million payout to wounded suspect

Drive-by shooting suspect Robert Contreras was left a near quadriplegic after police shot him in 2005. The city risks a much higher payout if it forgoes the settlement and appeals a jury's decision.

April 04, 2012|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times

Following a jury's verdict that Los Angeles police officers were wrong to shoot a man they believed was armed, the City Council now must decide whether to approve a controversial $4.5-million settlement payout to the paralyzed man.

The case stems from a night in September 2005, when several officers on patrol in South L.A. responded to a report of a nearby shooting. Witnesses pointed to a white van leaving the scene, saying people inside had unloaded a volley of gunfire while driving by. After a brief pursuit, the three men inside the van jumped out and scattered. Officers Julio Benevides and Mario Flores chased after the driver, 19-year-old Robert Contreras.

The officers, who told investigators they saw a gun in Contreras' hand as he bolted, shot him multiple times in the side and back when he allegedly turned toward them with an object in his hand. It turned out to be a cellphone and no gun was found.

Nonetheless, following an internal investigation, the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by an independent board that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department.

Contreras, who was left a near quadriplegic with some use of his arms, was convicted in 2009 for his role in the drive-by shooting and sentenced to seven years in state prison. Released on parole last year, he filed a federal lawsuit, accusing the officers of excessive force and violating his civil rights.

During the trial in February, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson did not allow jurors to hear several pieces of information that may have swayed their decision. For example, they did not know that Contreras had been convicted in the drive-by, that he was a known member of the Florencia 13 gang, or that one of the other men in the van told investigators Contreras exited the vehicle armed with a gun, according to records obtained by The Times.

After jurors found unanimously against the officers, a second trial was set to determine how much money in damages the city should pay Contreras. With that trial pending, lawyers for the city and Contreras agreed to the $4.5-million settlement.

On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to vote on whether to approve the deal.

The choice before the council is a stark one: Agreeing to pay would protect the city from the possibility of a jury awarding Contreras far more money. But it also means making a multimillionaire of a known gang member who led police on a dangerous foot pursuit after taking part in a drive-by shooting.

Citing the financial risk and the low likelihood that an appeals court would side with the city, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich has recommended the council pay the settlement, according to records. Chief Deputy City Atty. William Carter said in an interview that a jury is likely to deliver a verdict at least twice as large as the settlement amount.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also has called on the council to approve the settlement.

"As unfortunate as this may be, the city could have been liable for a significantly greater amount," said Peter Sanders, the mayor's press secretary.

At least one member of the council is infuriated by the idea.

"It sends a terrible message to police officers … not just the two officers involved, but to every officer in the LAPD, who could be faced with the same sort of situation," Paul Krekorian said. "I could never live with myself voting to support a payment to someone who put officers' lives at risk."

Krekorian conceded his principled stand could cost the city millions of dollars at a time when it is trying to combat serious budget shortfalls. Regardless, he said, he believed the city should exhaust its appeal options before agreeing to pay Contreras.

"There's a risk, no doubt about it," he said. "But this jury said it thinks these officers violated this man's civil rights. And I think we should send a message that we think this jury is dead wrong."

Meanwhile, officials representing the police officers' union have been calling council members, urging them to vote against the settlement, sources said.

Carter emphasized the city attorney's office must make its recommendation based on what it believes is in the city's best interests. The judge's rulings in the case, he said, left them little choice. "We have to operate in the courtroom.... You fight as hard as you can up to a point and then you give your client — the City Council — their options. It's the client, not us, that has to decide."

An attorney for Contreras did not return a call seeking comment. Police officials said they stood by the actions of the officers.

Krekorian chairs the council's Budget and Finance Committee, which this week voted against the settlement — a recommendation that the full council will consider when it votes.

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