Scott Glover and Matt Lait, Times Staff Writers
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
All Rights Reserved
A federal jury on Thursday awarded $15 million to three Los Angeles police officers who alleged they were falsely arrested and maliciously prosecuted during the Rampart corruption scandal that roiled the LAPD for years beginning in 1999.
The jury award represents a bitter pill for the city, which already has doled out about $70 million in Rampart-related settlements to gang members, drug dealers and other victims of police abuse -- and now faces the prospect of paying another significant judgment to officers who were accused of committing some of that same misconduct.
The Orange County jury deliberated for 2 1/2 hours before voting unanimously in favor of Sgt. Edward Ortiz, Officer Paul Harper and former Sgt. Brian Liddy. The award was split evenly among them.
"It was real, real obvious that they were made the fall guys," said juror Rose McKay. "We listened to the evidence for three weeks and never heard any hard evidence against them."
Dale Goldfarb, a private attorney hired to defend the city, said he disagreed with the verdict and planned to challenge it in post-trial motions. "We think the verdict was completely wrong and was not supported by any evidence at the trial," he said.
A spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the city probably would appeal if those motions failed. "It's obviously a significant amount of taxpayer money," spokesman Joe Ramallo said. "It's serious."
The verdict could hardly come at a worse time for the mayor. Villaraigosa, who has pledged to expand the Police Department and tackle other city needs even as the government faces a persistent structural deficit, is working to prepare the first city budget of his tenure since being elected last year.
The $15 million, Ramallo noted, would be enough to fund 150 more police officers.
Ortiz, Liddy and Harper were arrested in April 2000 on corruption-related charges stemming from the then-unfolding Rampart scandal, in which corrupt former Officer Rafael Perez alleged that he and his colleagues routinely framed, beat and otherwise mistreated suspects.
After a month-long criminal trial, Harper was acquitted of all charges. Liddy and Ortiz were acquitted on some counts but convicted along with another officer of obstruction of justice. Their convictions were thrown out, however, after the judge concluded that she had committed an error that tainted the verdict.
The three officers filed a civil lawsuit a year later, alleging that police and prosecutors conspired to deprive them of their civil rights by falsely arresting them, searching their homes at gunpoint, fingerprinting them and bringing them to trial based on evidence elicited from convicted felons and liars.
Some of the criminal charges against the officers and their subsequent civil suit stem from the April 26, 1996, arrest of an alleged 18th Street gang member named Allan Lobos, who Perez contended was framed by the officers on a gun charge.
Perez made that allegation as part of a plea deal in which he agreed to implicate allegedly crooked officers in exchange for a reduced sentence on charges that he stole three kilograms of cocaine from department evidence lockers.
Based on Perez's accusations, Oritz, Liddy and Harper were accused of falsifying information to frame Lobos. Among the charges they faced were conspiracy, perjury and filing a false police report. They were acquitted of all counts relating to that arrest.
Ortiz and Liddy faced separate charges growing out of another arrest, but the convictions on those counts were the ones overturned based on the judge's error.
In court papers, the three officers alleged that Perez added details and changed facts about the alleged planting of a gun on Lobos during his various debriefings with detectives assigned to a special task force to investigate his allegations.
"Under the circumstances, [any] competent investigator worth his salt would realize that Perez's motivations were strictly self-serving and that his credibility was zero," the officers said in court papers.
Prosecutors said at the time of the trial that they corroborated Perez's allegations about the Lobos arrest and did not rely on Perez himself for any element of the case. In fact, Perez was not called to testify.
Despite their acquittal, the officers said that they were humiliated by the allegations and that their reputations were ruined.
"They've been through hell," said attorney Etan Z. Lorant, who represented the three. "The jury did the right thing. These guys deserve it."
During closing arguments, Lorant and his co-counsel, Joseph Y. Avrahamy, asked the jury to return verdicts of $5 million apiece. The jury awarded $5 million plus $1 to each officer.
"They were sending a message," Lorant said. "They wanted to show the city that these officers needed to be respected."
After being placed on unpaid leave for five years, Liddy was fired last month for misconduct related to a June 1999 narcotics arrest. Ortiz remains on unpaid leave pending resolution of misconduct allegations against him. Harper, who was cleared of all criminal and administrative charges, was returned to active duty several years ago.
The jury's award covered the officers' pain, suffering, emotional distress and other general damages. No punitive damages were awarded.
In another finding, the jury rejected the plaintiffs' allegations that former LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a City Council member, maliciously or fraudulently sought their prosecution.
Parks testified at the trial, as did detectives who investigated the Rampart scandal.
McKay, the juror, said some of the witnesses "conveniently couldn't recall" events that led to charges being filed against the officers.
Lorant spent more than five years working on the case "because I believed in these guys," he said.
He said that the litigation took an emotional toll on all of them and a financial toll on him personally. He said he had to borrow money to pay bills while he continued working on the case.
Lorant thanked the jurors profusely after the verdict.
"You guys are great," he said as they left. "Thanks.... I'm ready to cry."
Liddy, who was the only plaintiff present when the verdict came in, did cry. He declined to discuss the case later. His two colleagues could not be reached for comment.
"My clients are in shock," Lorant said. "They've been vindicated."
Three Rampart scandal L.A. officers get $15 Million