Los Angeles Held Liable for Rape by Officer
Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles
In a decision that broadens the liability of California municipalities for wrongdoingby law-enforcement officers, the State Supreme Court has ruled that Los Angeles must pay $150,000 to a woman raped 10 years ago by an on-duty police officer who had detained her on suspicion of drunken driving.
On a vote of 5 to 2, the court held Thursday that the officer had acted in the course of his employment and that the city was therefore liable. The decision, which reversed an appellate court ruling, reinstated a jury's award to the woman, who has been identified in court papers only as Mary M.
"An officer who detains an individual is acting as the official representative of the state, with all of its coercive power," Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote for the court majority. Major Precedent Seen
"Inherent in this formidable power is the potential for abuse," she wrote. "The cost resulting from misuse of that power should be borne by the community, because of the substantial benefits that the community derives from the lawful exercise of police power."
The ruling set an important precedent, according to lawyers on both sides of the case. Vann H. Slatter, a lawyer for the rape victim, said, "It has national implications, because other than the state of Louisiana we are aware of no other jurisdiction that has held a municipality responsible for such actions by police officers."
Mr. Slatter and his partner, Paul R. Kiesel, had argued before the court that the case should be treated like one involving an officer's excessive use of force, for which a city can be held liable.
But Los Angeles had argued that rape, unlike other uses of force, cannot occur within the scope of an officer's employment because it cannot be considered a logical outgrowth of police work.
Assistant City Attorney Richard M. Helgeson said of Thursday's ruling: "It certainly seems to me that this diverges from what has usually been considered the scope of employment. The principle is a very, very sweeping one." Victim Tells of Fear
In an interview on Friday, the victim of the rape said the ruling would encourage women who had had similar experiences to take legal action.
"I was afraid at the time that no one would believe me," she said. "It's still very hard for me to be able to trust a police officer."
The case dated from October 1981, when Sgt. Leigh B. Schroyer detained the woman on suspicion of drunken driving. Sergeant Schroyer took her to her home in Northridge, in the suburban San Fernando Valley, and raped her there.
The sergeant, a 15-year veteran of the police force, was convicted of rape in 1982 and served 18 months of a three-year sentence in state prison.
The woman sued the city and Sergeant Schroyer under California's civil rights law. In 1986, a jury in Los Angeles Superior Court returned a $150,000 judgment and found that Sergeant Schroyer had acted in the scope of his employment, making the city liable for the entire amount.
In 1988, the state's Second District Court of Appeal overturned that part of the verdict that applied to the city, prompting the woman's appeal to the State Supreme Court.