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Burning Judge Judy

To the list of jurists, prosecutors, defense attorneys and cops who ignored early warning signals of corruption at the LAPD’s Rampart station, you can now add Judge Judy.

The sharp-tongued family-court judge with the hit television show aired, last May, an unusual twist on the question of police misconduct -- a claim for damages brought by Rampart CRASH officer Jesus Amezcua against a defendant, Felipe Rosas, who said he was abused in the course of an arrest. When Rosas filed a complaint with the LAPD, Amezcua sued him. And when the two argued the matter before Judge Judy, she dismissed Rosas‘ misconduct allegation and awarded Amezcua the $5,000.

Of course, that opinion was rendered months before former LAPD officer Rafael Perez went public with his allegations that cops from the Rampart division routinely engaged in misconduct, including beatings, shootings and robberies of the people they arrested. In light of that testimony, Rosas’ claim looks a lot more convincing.

Also in hindsight, Amezcua‘s appearance on the show looks a lot less convincing. Responding to questions from the bench, Amezcua said he’d never seen any incidents of officers brutalizing a criminal suspect. “Maybe back in the ‘40s or ’50s,” Amezcua said smiling, “but not in the new LAPD.”

Fortunately for Rosas, Amezcua‘s award was paid by the show. Both the plaintiff and the defendant were also paid $400 for appearing in Judge Judy’s court.

Rosas‘ troubles began in July 1998, when a woman he describes as an ex-girlfriend filed a complaint charging him with stealing her purse. Rosas claimed an airtight alibi -- he said he was at work at the time, and his colleagues backed him up -- and the case was dismissed, but not before his encounter with the officers from Rampart.

Rosas, now 26, lives with his parents in the same home in which he was born, in Echo Park. That was the address where, three weeks after the alleged theft, Amezcua arrived with his partner Manny Dickerson and half a dozen other officers to arrest Rosas on suspicion of robbery.

There were several squad cars at the scene, Rosas said, along with a police helicopter. According to Amezcua, the officers staked out Rosas’ home, then saw him get into his car and arrested him as he drove away.

As Amezcua told it on television, he had Rosas exit the car, then put him down on the ground, placed a knee in the small of his back and handcuffed him. He searched Rosas and found a fistful of quarters and several Nintendo game packs in his pockets; he asked Rosas where he might deposit those belongings, and Rosas said to leave them with his uncle, who was asleep in the house.

The officers entered the home to return Rosas‘ property, Amezcua said, then returned to the site of arrest. Rosas cooperated with the officers as he was taken to Rampart station, Amezcua said, “but after he realized he was being booked for robbery his attitude changed.”

In an interview at his home, Rosas strongly disputed that account. “They didn’t treat me like a person,” Rosas said. “I asked, ‘What’s going on?‘ and all they said was ’Shut the fuck up.‘” Rosas said he was questioned repeatedly about what gang he was involved with, and repeatedly ignored when he said he had nothing to do with gangs. “I finally told them I was with ’NBA,‘” Rosas said. “They were satisfied with that, and they wrote it down. When Internal Affairs asked me about it later, I told them what it meant -- National Basketball Association.”

Rosas said that when, at the time of his arrest, he was prone on the ground and being handcuffed, somebody had kneed or struck him sharply in the back, painfully aggravating an old injury from an auto accident. In addition, Rosas said, when the officers searched his car, a 1981 Cadillac he bought for $500, they tore out the electric-window controls, causing extensive damage. (The door panels remain in pieces today.)

Rosas also says he was robbed. Testifying before Judge Judy, Rosas said that when the officers went into his home, “They went into my room and tore everything apart, checked through my stuff. And I had $62 on top of my TV --[$62] which, when I came out of jail, I did not find . . . Basically, if they had not gone in my room, my money would still be there.”

Judge Judy -- her full name is Judith Sheindlin, and she spent 14 years on the bench in New York before retiring to launch her hit show -- quickly dismissed that part of Rosas’ story. “From the time you were put in the police car to the time you were released from jail, sir, you don‘t know what happened inside your house,” she said.

As in so many cases arising from the Rampart scandal, the lead characters in this story come with baggage. Rosas’ version of the facts leading to his arrest, for example, is disputed by his accuser, who denies any prior personal relationship and continues to maintain that Rosas stole her purse after she refused his romantic advances.

As for Amezcua, he‘s been singled out by residents of the district he polices as being particularly aggressive and physical -- the same sort of complaints as the one lodged by Rosas. (Asked for comment, Rampart station Captain Bob Hansohn said he would not discuss an officer’s “reputation” because the term was too vague, and said he could not discuss Rosas in particular because he was not familiar with the case.)

None of this was known to Judge Judy at the time the pair appeared on her show, however. Nor did she hear the details Rosas described in an interview about what happened after his arrest -- that he was jailed for three days and finally released on the strength of his alibi. He said that in the weeks after the incident, he visited Rampart station to seek compensation for the cost of his vehicle being impounded, and filed a complaint against the arresting officers.

Rosas said the officer who took his complaint was himself hostile and intimidating, and that officers at the station promptly lost track of that same complaint. Rosas followed up, however, directly contacting LAPD Internal Affairs. He finally got an answer, by letter, this January. Rampart Captain Hansohn wrote that there was insufficient evidence to support the complaint, and concluded that there was “no basis for disciplinary action.”

Little of the material supporting Rosas‘ case made it on the air with Judge Judy. Instead, she was preoccupied with the fact that Amezcua would seek to protect Rosas’ property before taking him in.

“An officer asked to release your property to someone in your home, right?” she asked Rosas. “That was a nice thing, right? They didn‘t have to give a rat’s behind about what happened to your property in your car.

”So what you‘re suggesting is that one of these nice, polite officers, who did a lot more for you than a lot of other policemen would do that I know . . . then went into your room and pulled your room apart.“

Judge Judy, of course, is as much about show business as jurisprudence, and her snap judgments, her wry humor and her exaggerated manner make up a trademark routine that has won a growing audience and an Emmy nomination for her syndicated half-hour show, which airs in L.A. on Channel 9.

Yet her presumptions about cops and about defendants -- Amezcua did manage to make reference to Rosas’ ”possible“ gang affiliation -- are the same sort of presumptions that allowed hundreds of criminal defendants at Rampart to be convicted despite routine misconduct by officers. Even as the cases were being tried, many of those defendants asserted that evidence had been planted, that the charges were bogus or that the officers had engaged in misconduct. Their pleas were ignored at the time, only to be cited by the district attorney in the dozens of cases now being dismissed as wrongful convictions.

Of course, there‘s no telling in the particular case of Amezcua vs. Rosas -- as in so many others, it’s the officer‘s word against a defendant’s. But to watch a tape of Rosas‘ appearance before Judge Judy is to see how easily the cops who come before her are able get their points across.

After dismissing the robbery allegation out of hand, Judge Judy turned to the question of the alleged beating, pressing Rosas to specify which officer had struck him. Rosas said he could not say for sure, because at the time, his face was pressed to the pavement. He did point out Officer Dickerson, however, who was sitting in Judge Judy’s gallery. ”That Hispanic officer over there,“ said Rosas, ”he needs some anger-management classes because he basically lost it that day.“

Judge Judy moved on to describe, crisply, her reasoning in the case, and then engaged in what now seems a haunting exchange with Amezcua.

Addressing Amezcua, she said, ”Sir, it belies credulity -- which means I don‘t believe -- that somebody who had just brutalized a suspect, as he alleges you did, would then say we would like to help you by safeguarding the property that you have on your person so that nobody steals it while you are in jail; ’How can we help you with that . . . ‘ Officers who brutalize people don’t do that.“

She paused, and then said pointedly, ”There are officers who brutalize people. You know that, right?“

Amezcua smiled. ”I won‘t answer that, ma’am,“ he said.

”Oh, yes you will,“ she shot back fiercely.

Amezcua responded with seasoned witness-stand jargon: ”I have not been witness to any such allegations, ma‘am.“

Judge Judy pursued the point, displaying at once both savvy and naivete: ”You may not have been witness to it, sir, but you’ve heard about those things, haven‘t you?“

When Amezcua answered, ”Maybe back in the ’40s and ‘50s,“ Judge Judy interjected, ”That’s not true.“ And when Amezcua continued, ”But not the new LAPD, ma‘am,“ she admonished him: ”That’s not necessarily true, officer. Don‘t test yourself with me. So far, you’re batting a thousand.“

However skeptical Judge Judy may have been about modern-day cops, she reserved most of her skepticism that day for Rosas and his allegations of misconduct. She closed the hearing with a sharp exchange with Rosas.

Referring to the effects of the misconduct complaint on Amezcua, she said, ”He just went through a year‘s worth of torture and something that’s going to remain on his record permanently.“

”He should‘a got fired,“ Rosas said.

”You say that he hit you with a baton and kicked you with his knee, using unnecessary force?“

”Correct.“

Sheindlin delivered her answer with a shout: ”Baloney!“