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L.A. council rejects settlement in 2005 police shooting

The proposed $4.5-million payout would have ended the case of a man fleeing the scene of a South L.A. drive-by shooting who was left paralyzed. A new jury will decide how much money he should get.

April 11, 2012|By Joel Rubin and David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday rejected a proposed $4.5-million payout to a man shot by police as he fled a drive-by shooting.

The payment would have settled a lawsuit Robert Contreras brought against the city over the 2005 shooting, which left him paralyzed. After a jury found that the officers had used excessive force in shooting Contreras and fearing that the city could be ordered to pay more than $10 million, lawyers for the city urged the council to accept the settlement deal.

But the council ignored the advice, voting 8 to 4 against making the payment.

Councilman Paul Krekorian, who has voiced strong opposition to the payout, applauded the vote, saying, "The jury reached a profoundly wrong conclusion because it did not hear important evidence that undoubtedly would have impacted its view of the case. This city cannot validate that mistaken judgment."

The case stems from an incident 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 the people inside had unloaded a volley of gunfire while driving by.

After a brief pursuit, the people inside the van jumped out and scattered. Officers Julio Benevides and Mario Flores chased after Contreras, who was then 19. 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. He turned out to be unarmed and no gun was found.

After an internal investigation, the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by an independent board that oversees the LAPD.

Contreras, who is now 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 using excessive force and violating his civil rights.

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

Dale Galipo, Contreras' attorney, disputed the officers' account of the shooting, saying Contreras was unarmed and played no part in the shooting. Contreras did not turn toward the officers and was given no warning before being shot, Galipo said.

The jury "did not unanimously decide this was an unjust shooting without there being some very convincing evidence," Galipo said.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who voted in favor of the settlement, called it a necessary "business decision" that would have prevented the city's budget — already facing a $220-million shortfall — from being drained further.

With the settlement scuttled, a new jury will make a decision about how much Contreras should be paid. Along with his medical care, which is estimated to cost $4 million to $10 million, jurors will consider the pain and suffering he has experienced because of the shooting. They will hear nothing about the drive-by or anything else about Contreras, Galipo said, raising the likelihood that they will order the city to pay far more than the $4.5-million settlement.

"I think the cost is going to go up geometrically," Parks said.

Krekorian and others who opposed the payment acknowledged that taking a moral stand on the case might end up costing taxpayers millions, but said the city should exhaust its legal appeals before voluntarily paying Contreras.

"To me, it's worth the risk," Councilman Joe Buscaino said.

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