A federal court of appeals has upheld one of the largest verdicts ever in a lawsuit brought against a police department by its own officers. The case arose from the Los Angeles Police Department’s investigation and prosecution of three former police officers, Paul Harper, Brian Liddy, and Edward Ortiz. The officers were implicated in wrongdoing by former LAPD officer Rafael Perez in an event that came to be known as the “Rampart Scandal” – an event that, based on Perez’s own unlawful conduct and his allegations of corruption at the Rampart Division, launched an internal investigation that ultimately implicated scores of police officers, overturned dozens of convictions, and generated intense media scrutiny.
The criminal charges against Harper, Liddy, and Ortiz resulted in acquittals. The officers subsequently brought suit against a number of persons, including Perez, the district attorney, the City of Los Angeles, and former Chief of Police Bernard Parks for violations of their constitutional civil rights, raising among other claims that the City had conducted an improper and negligent investigation, and that they had been arrested without probable cause for falsifying a police report and conspiring to file such a report.
After an 11-day trial, a jury returned a special verdict in favor of the officers, finding that the officers’ constitutional rights were violated by the City and by Chief Parks in his official capacity. The jury awarded each officer compensatory damages in the amount of $5,000,001. When the Court refused to set aside the jury’s verdict, the City appealed to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
A key argument in the Appeals Court was whether there was adequate evidence that the impermissible treatment of the officers was the result of a “custom or practice” on the part of the City, or rather was simply the result of false allegations made by Perez. Absent a “custom or practice,” the City could not be liable for any constitutional violations resulting from Perez’s allegations.
The Court found sufficient evidence that a “custom or practice” on the part of the City resulted in the harm to the officers. The Court held that “the jury reasonably could have concluded that Chief Parks’ telephonic statements to District Attorney Garcetti, in which Parks expressed confidence in Perez and pressured Garcetti to file criminal charges without a complete or fully corroborated investigation, were indicative of an official policy whereby the City impliedly or tacitly authorized, approved, or encouraged illegal conduct by its police officers. Indeed, the chain-of-command [investigating Perez’s allegations] reported regularly to Parks and the jury was entitled to believe that Chief Parks’ expressions as the official policymaker accurately reflected the direction and quality of the Task Force investigation, which was to ready cases for the filing of charges as quickly as possible, with or without probable cause.
“The jury also heard ample testimony that the Task Force conducted itself in precisely this manner. First, the jury heard testimony from Sergeant Jose Pasqual, who worked for the Task Force interviewing prisoners, that Perez claimed had been wrongfully incarcerated. Sergeant Pasqual testified that his ‘immediate bosses and higher-up[s] … believed everything Perez was saying.’ Sergeant Pasqual also testified as to the resistance and retaliation he encountered when he tried to inform other detectives that Perez was lying. The jury also heard testimony that the Task Force had overlooked the development of information that Perez was accusing innocent officers, that other Task Force investigations that may have impugned Perez’s credibility were prematurely foreclosed, and that two Task Force detectives confronted with questions about Perez’s credibility responded by stating: ‘This is not about the truth.’ The jury also heard testimony and received documentary evidence that the City had coached Perez to fix the holes in his story rather than confront him with his inconsistent accounts, that the Task Force prepared paraphrased statements that did not accurately reflect the testimony of witnesses, and that the Task Force did not credit any evidence that did not support its theory that the officers committed a crime.”
The City also challenged the size of the jury’s verdict. The Court rejected the challenge, finding that “each officer testified about the adverse physical and emotional effects of the media attention and his loss of reputation. Harper developed high blood pressure and intestinal problems; he began to drink frequently and heavily and became paranoid. Ortiz became suicidal and experienced heartburn, back and neck pain, and anxiety attacks. Liddy gained 100 pounds, was hospitalized for chest pains, and deveoped high blood pressure.
“The officers also testified as to the adverse effect the experience had on their personal and professional lives. Harper had to work lower-paying security jobs; his house was searched in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter; he was told he was put on a hit-list by a gang member shot and framed by Perez; and even after he was cleared of all charges and returned to the LAPD he was unable to work on the street because of the publicity and had to take a desk job. Ortiz was also told he was on a hit-list; his family broke apart when his wife left him because of the negative publicity, and his teenage stepdaughter ran away, attempted suicide, and was placed in a psychiatric ward. Liddy lost his career, filed for bankruptcy, and the negative publicity had significant adverse effects on his young children. This testimony is substantial evidence from which the jury could find that the harm to each officer justified an identical damage award.”
Harper v. City of Los Angeles, 533 F.3d 1010 (9th Cir. 2008).
This article appears in the October 2008 issue