The judge presiding over about 100 federal police corruption lawsuits has ruled the city's police department can be sued as a racketeering enterprise.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess could lead to a sharp increase in the city's financial liability from the police corruption scandal in which some members of the Rampart station's anti-gang unit allegedly robbed, beat, framed and shot suspects.
Legal experts say the ruling is groundbreaking because no police department or major police official has ever been held liable under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
The RICO law originally was enacted to fight organized crime, but has been used over the past three decades in cases ranging from stock manipulation to health-care fraud.
In addition to presiding over about 100 Rampart cases, Feess is overseeing the consent decree between the city and the federal government that was formulated to avert a civil rights lawsuit planned by the U.S. Justice Department.
More Than 100 Convictions Overturned
Feess' written ruling, issued late last week, came as part of a lawsuit filed by Los Angeles resident D'Novel Hunter, who claims he spent four years in prison after being framed on a charge of possessing cocaine for sale by former Officer Rafael Perez.
Perez, the central figure in the scandal, told of misdeeds by Rampart police in exchange for a lighter sentence for stealing cocaine from an evidence room.
More than 100 convictions have been set aside since the allegations became public in 1999. The city has paid millions of dollars to settle dozens of lawsuits, and officials have previously estimated they could pay as much as $125 million.
Hunter's case is not among those that have been overturned.