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Light of Justice

Photo by Anne Fishbein

Ask District Attorney Steve Cooley if he has concerns about how the Inglewood Police Department handled persistent charges of misconduct on the part of former Officer Jeremy Morse, and he’ll shrug and say, “Internal Affairs wasn’t real conscientious. Or they hadn’t gotten around to it. But they fired him eventually. That’s one sanction for his conduct.”

Try telling that to Patricia Surjue, a Department of Homeland Security employee and mother of two. Surjue claims Morse threw her down the stairs of her own home in front of her children, damaging her both physically and emotionally, in October 2001. That was months after others had complained of similar abuse, and long before Morse was caught on videotape beating teenager Donovan Jackson, in July 2002.

When Cooley chose to try the Jackson case, for obvious reasons in this post–Rodney King era, Surjue turned to the civil justice system. But she found no justice there. Her own lawyers and a federal judge last October cajoled her into a confidential settlement, an improper tactic for public agencies which almost allowed Inglewood officials to sweep her case under the rug. Lawyers for the city may try similar strategies to dispose of lawsuits by Morse’s alleged victims, leaving the public to wonder about the steps Inglewood officials took, or did not take, through 11 internal investigations in Morse’s first 31 months on the job.

Surjue’s search for justice improved in the days after a January 16 story in the L.A. Weekly exposed the secret deal. Now, after initially pushing her toward a back-door settlement, U.S. District Judge James Otero has acknowledged her First Amendment right to tell her story and the public’s right to know about Morse. The judge has scheduled a hearing for February 17 to determine whether Surjue’s reluctant settlement will be revised or called off, which leaves open the possibility of a trial.

And last week, after Cooley’s office failed a second time to convict Morse, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation into the Jackson case. Though the scope is limited to a review of Morse’s two state criminal trials, officials in Washington, D.C., do not rule out the possibility of “further federal action, if warranted.” Such action would come from the civil division at the Justice Department, to examine patterns of police misconduct on the Inglewood force.

Judge Otero, in a ruling last September 2, supported Surjue’s version of events. He agreed that Morse entered Surjue’s home illegally on October 20, 2001, in response to a child visitation complaint and illegally seized her in violation of her civil rights. Surjue further claimed that Morse used excessive force when he threw her against the wall and shoved her down the stairs. Surjue said that she and her two boys, ages 5 and 12 at the time, remain traumatized, and a broken coccyx left her incontinent. (Morse has remained silent, but his partner, Officer Bijan Darvish, wrote in a police report that Morse lost his grip as he escorted a flailing Surjue down the stairs. Darvish was acquitted last July of filing a false police report in the Jackson case.)

Despite the judge’s favorable ruling, Surjue walked into Otero’s courtroom on October 23 feeling dejected. She had been unhappy with her lawyers, Robert Mann and Cynthia Anderson-Barker, she told the Weekly last month. She said they were too focused on a settlement that would earn them $250,000, while she and her sons would have to settle for $220,000. But to her it was about more than money. “There has to be accountability,” she said, adding that she fears for her safety. “I am a law-abiding citizen. The city of Inglewood had a responsibility to protect me.”

But the city of Inglewood’s top priority seems to be to settle these matters quietly. The city faces at least five other lawsuits related to Morse, including one by Jackson. Morse was fired in 2002. Darvish is still on the force. The risk of bad publicity and a drain on city coffers is high. Ivie, McNeill & Wyatt represents the city, and is one of several firms the city is paying to fend off civil suits related to Morse and Darvish. The firm’s job is to resolve the Surjue case — outside the public view.

A transcript of an October 23 meeting in Otero’s courtroom shows the judge facilitating that goal. After explaining the settlement offer to Surjue, who claims she was intimidated, Otero said, “Look, Ms. Surjue, I’m not sure you appreciate the significant achievement by your counsel.” Once her lawyers reviewed the agreement, they would approve it and she would be required to sign, the judge said. “If you for any reason don’t sign that settlement document, this court will direct the clerk to sign [it] causing the case to be settled,” Otero said.

 

Weeks later, Surjue’s attorneys faxed her an agreement, which contained a clause ordering her not to talk about her case in public or in private. If anyone asked, she was to reply, “the case was resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all parties,” according to the standard language in Inglewood agreements. Surjue refused to sign. Forced silence was but one of her reasons. She wanted Inglewood officials exposed so that her children could have faith in the legal system, she said. And she wanted the public to see what Morse had done to her.

When Surjue refused to sign, the city refused to pay her — or her lawyers. Mann, of the firm Mann & Cook, and Anderson-Barker then asked Otero to enforce the settlement, “as swiftly and as privately as possible,” according to documents filed in federal court on January 15. A frequent mantra of plaintiffs’ lawyers, when questioned about settling cases rather than going to trial, is that they are obligated primarily to satisfy their client. And although Mann and Anderson-Barker asked Otero to strike the confidentiality clause, their request showed a persistent desire for a quiet, speedy resolution, which at the time was against Surjue’s wishes. In fact, when contacted, Surjue did not even know they had filed such a motion with the court.

 

Inglewood’s attorneys Rupert Byrdsong and Rickey Ivie, a candidate for State Assembly, responded by criticizing Surjue for talking to the Weekly, according to a motion filed in federal court on January 15. Then they tried to get her lawyers fired. “Surjue’s attorneys seek to enforce a settlement requiring [Surjue’s] signature, when she does not want to sign the said agreement,” Byrdsong wrote. “As [Surjue] and her counsel are in an adversarial position, [counsel] must be disqualified from representing [Surjue].”

A week later Otero ordered a hearing on February 17 to either “execute a written settlement or try the matter.” The judge also specified that, “any settlements entered into by the parties should be a matter of public record.” Which experts agree is the appropriate way to handle a police misconduct case.

Civil rights lawsuits can be important in showing a pattern of misconduct by officers and their superiors, according to former police commissioner and civil rights lawyer Melanie Lomax. “Civil trials analyze the quality of command decisions at the scene, and they benefit those trying to rectify police misconduct,” Lomax says, pointing to a $3.8 million jury verdict in the Rodney King beating, in 1994, and a $15 million settlement in the Rampart scandal, in 2001. “Money damages and the information that comes out of civil actions send a message. They are weapons that must be invoked when the criminal justice system has failed.”

Cooley says he doubts the Justice Department’s investigation of Morse in the Jackson case will result in a conviction, after his office was stymied by two hung juries. “They’re probably going to conclude they can’t do much better than we did and let it ride,” he said Monday. “When it comes to a wide variety of misconduct by police officers, it’s not criminal in nature, it’s basically personnel matters.”

Yet the possibility of the feds broadly investigating police misconduct and the failure of the Inglewood Police Department to rectify it depends on what kind of evidence turns up in the Jackson case, according to Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. And civil rights lawsuits like Surjue’s “should shed light on what’s going on in the department,” Levenson says.

“The city has a responsibility to remedy conduct that exposes it to liability,” Lomax adds. “A federal investigation could connect the dots.”

With a closer look at the Inglewood force and a federal judge who is willing to give Surjue her day in court, perhaps her cries for justice will have new meaning.

The Inglewood Docket

In addition to the Surjue and Jackson cases, here are some other lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court against the city of Inglewood and Jeremy Morse:

Neilson G. Williams v. Inglewood. Williams charges Morse with choking him after he was beaten about his head, face and body, on June 23, 2002. He was left in a coma. After he complained to the department, police charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol. Trial is scheduled next year.

Anthony Rowe v. Inglewood. Morse was in pursuit of Rowe after breaking up a group of young men congregating in June 2002, according to Rowe’s attorney. Once caught, Rowe claims Morse put him in a chokehold until he lost consciousness. When he regained consciousness, Rowe claims Morse choked him again until he passed out.

 

Roberto Willis v. Inglewood. On January 11, 2002, Morse and several officers entered an apartment and searched it without a warrant, according to the complaint. After handcuffing Willis, Morse struck him in the jaw, knocking out two teeth and loosening several others. After Willis complained, police charged him with possession of marijuana. Attorneys expect a trial this spring.

Akilah Artiaga v. Inglewood. Artiaga, who was six weeks pregnant at the time, claims that Morse beat her with a baton as she was raising her arms in submission, on December 31, 2001. At the police station, she claims she was given a choice: pursue a complaint against Morse or go home without being charged for interfering with a police officer. The next day, she began spotting, and eventually lost her baby in a miscarriage. Trial is possible in the coming months.

 

Source: Federal civil rights complaints filed in U.S. District Court, Central District.


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