Crime & Justice

City council set to vote on $4.5 million payout to unarmed suspect shot by LAPD

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More than six years ago, officers with the LAPD shot a man they believed to be armed and left him a near quadriplegic. Now, the city council must decide whether to settle with him for $4.5 million, even though the case is less open-and-shut than it seemed.

Robert Contreras was 19 years old when he and two other men participated in a drive-by shooting. The trio were convicted of unloading a volley of bullets into a street. Witnesses pointed out the van to police as it was leaving.

"Shortly after the van pulled over into a fast food lot, the men scattered," said Joel Rubin, an L.A. Times reporter who's been tracking the story. "Two officers ran after Contreras and followed him down a dark driveway he had ducked into. Officers opened fire when he turned towards them and had a dark object in his hand."

That dark object turned out to be a cell phone.

Contreras was convicted in 2009 for his role in the drive-by and spent the next seven years in state prison. Upon his release, the former gang member filed a lawsuit which accused the officers of excessive force and violating his civil rights.

The jury ruled in his favor, demanding the city pay him a $4.5 million settlement.

"But a big part of the story," says Rubin, "is that the presiding judge made a series of pre-trial rulings in which he forbid the jury from hearing several pieces of information about Contreras."

That information includes his being a gang member, his seven-year conviction for the drive-by and his friend's claim to investigators that when Contreras left the van he did, in fact, have a gun in his hand.

Now, the L.A. City Council has to approve the multimillion dollar settlement or kick it back to court, where a jury could either bump the settlement down or ratchet it up even higher.

City Attorney Carmen Trutanich's office negotiated the $4.5 million settlement with Contreras to avoid a second court phase.

"It could always be more. That's why you settle," Chief Deputy City Attorney William Carter said. "The jury ruled against us. Their lawyer is asking for a lot of money." He declined to give an exact figure.

Councilmember Paul Krekorian is adamant against approval.

"He has been very outspoken," said Rubin. "He says that, 'We have a man who was convicted of being in a drive-by and leading police in foot pursuit. We should not under any circumstances make a multimillionaire of this guy.'"

Krekorian's going to need to persuade a few more members, although he's far from the settlement's only opposition. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck are also less-than-enthusiastic about the payout.

"The mayor agrees with Councilman Krekorian that the claims board made a mistake in concurring with the city attorney that the $4.5 million settlement to a man convicted for participating in a drive-by shooting was appropriate," Villaraigosa Senior Press Secretary Peter Sanders said. "Given the facts in this case, we'd rather take our chances on appeal."

The city council needs majority approval to shoot down the proposed settlement. The council votes next Tuesday.