Los Angeles — Already rocked by the city's worst police scandal, the Los Angeles Police Department faces the threat of legal action under the same racketeering laws used to prosecute mobsters and criminal organizations.
A decision by U.S. District Judge William Rea allowing a racketeering lawsuit to go forward means that people victimized in ongoing police corruption cases could perhaps recover hundreds of millions of dollars. Damages in such amounts could be substantially more than the $100 million city attorneys estimated the city would have to pay if civil rights laws were applied.
Over the last 30 years, the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) has led to the imprisonment of numerous crime figures, including New York mobster John Gotti. While the law in recent years has been used to bankrupt a white supremacist group, experts say it has rarely been applied to a police department.
But by using the racketeering law, numerous plaintiffs accusing officers of fabricating evidence and false imprisonment could, if successful, receive triple the amount of a jury award.
Rea's Monday night ruling was the latest twist in the drama swirling around the department's Rampart Division, a controversy sparked when an officer arrested for selling cocaine stolen from a police evidence locker agreed to inform on fellow officers.
More than 70 police officers are under suspicion for crimes including planting weapons and drugs on unarmed people shot by police and lying under oath to secure their convictions. So far five officers have been arrested and more than 100 convictions have been overturned. The city expects up to 275 lawsuits as a result of the burgeoning scandal.
"I think it's insanity," Police Commissioner Herbert Boeckman said of the judge's ruling Monday.
"The city's liability could go from $100 million to $3 billion in one fell swoop," said Stephen Yagman, a lawyer representing a man whose false imprisonment case against Los Angeles police prompted the ruling. The racketeering law has a 10-year statute of limitation instead of the two-year limitation imposed in civil rights cases, which Yagman asserted may prompt many more plaintiffs to come forward.
"People hurt by the LAPD will be compensated. And the city may be bankrupted by this," Yagman added. "The implications of this are stunning."
Originally designed to topple organized crime, according to experts, the racketeering law in recent years has been applied to violent acts committed by white supremacist groups and in rare instances in corruption scandals in small-town police departments and in the Tennessee governor's office.
The law applies to "any partnership, corporation, association or other legal entity" engaged in such racketeering activities as bribery, fabricating evidence, extortion or obstruction of justice.
The standard for proof is much higher in racketeering cases than in civil rights cases, experts say. While a plaintiff in a civil rights case would have to establish that his rights and a law were violated, a plaintiff in a racketeering case would also have to prove that a corrupt enterprise contributed to the crime.
"When organizations and groups get together and pool their resources, they are much more dangerous than just individuals," said Patrick Cotter, a lawyer with Chicago-based Arnstein and Lehr and a former federal prosecutor involved in the Gotti case.