City ordered to pay $5.7 million in police shooting
Although the payout, which could reach about $6.5 million if the city is ordered to pay attorney’s fees, was far less than what city officials had been told to expect, it was more than what the city needed to pay in the case: In April, the City Council rejected a proposed settlement deal that would have paid Robert Contreras $4.5 million.
The jury’s decision compensates the 26-year-old Contreras for injuries he suffered one night in September 2005, when several officers on patrol in South L.A. responded to a report of a nearby shooting. As they arrived, witnesses pointed to a white van speeding away and said people inside the vehicle had let off a volley of gunfire while driving by. After a brief pursuit, the three men in the van jumped out and scattered.
Officer Mario Flores and Det. Julio Benavides, also a police officer at the time, chased Contreras into a dark driveway. When Contreras allegedly turned toward them with an object in his hand, the officers opened fire, hitting him multiple times in the side and back. Contreras had been holding a cellphone. The officers told investigators afterward they had seen a gun in Contreras' hand as he bolted, but an extensive search of the area found no weapon.
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 against the city, claiming the officers used excessive force and violated his civil rights.
During the February trial, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson did not allow lawyers for the city to tell jurors several pieces of information, including the fact that Contreras had been convicted in the drive-by, that he was a known gang member and that one of the other men in the van had told investigators Contreras exited the vehicle armed with a gun, according to records obtained by The Times.
That jury unanimously found in favor of Contreras. Faced with a second trial to determine how much money the city would have to pay to cover Contreras’ extensive medical care costs and the pain he suffered, lawyers for the city agreed with Contreras’ attorneys to a $4.5-million settlement.
However, the notion of making Contreras a multimillionaire did not sit well with several members of the City Council. An internal LAPD inquiry had cleared the officers of wrongdoing, and the proposed payout amounted essentially to an admission they had done something wrong, angry council members said. “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,” Councilman Paul Krekorian said at the time.
Despite warnings from city lawyers that a jury could award more than double the settlement amount, the council rejected the deal in an 8-4 vote.
The second trial, which ran for two days this week, was largely a fight over the amount and cost of the physical therapy, medical care and general assistance Contreras will need for the rest of his life. Although medical experts put forth by Contreras’ lawyer argued he would need a round-the-clock attendant and expensive machinery to help him move, the city countered with its own experts who said far less was necessary.
Contreras, said Deputy City Atty. Craig Miller, had failed to work aggressively on his rehabilitation and would have more mobility and independence if he did so. The attempts by his attorney to portray him as a near-complete invalid were a “sympathy ploy,” Miller told jurors.
It was a risky argument to make with Contreras seated before the jury in an elaborate wheelchair, his fingers curled with paralysis. “So many things we take for granted -– to walk, to pick up a child, maybe to have a family,” said his attorney, Dale Galipo, in his closing remarks to the jury. “You need to take all of that into consideration.”
Miller and Krekorian could not be reached immediately. Galipo said that although he was pleased with the jury’s decision, he had been hoping for more. “It’s still a significant amount of money,” he said. “We asked for more, but, remember, I would have settled this case for less.”
-- Joel Rubin
Photo: Los Angeles City Hall, left, and LAPD headquarters. Credit: Brian vander Brug / Los Angeles Times