Fighting for civil rights in the face of police misconduct
Terry Lafitte was a 49-year-old black man riding his bicycle in the dark of night in South Central Los Angeles. Two sheriff’s deputies, in their squad car, saw that Lafitte’s bicycle did not have safety light reflectors attached to it. The deputies also claimed that that they thought Lafitte was drunk. The deputies tried to stop him by yelling at him through their vehicle window. They did not use their loudspeaker, siren, or light bars. Lafitte did not stop but continued to ride his bicycle to his home a block away. Arriving at his home, he dismounted and walked his bicycle to his backyard. By this time, the two deputies had begun foot pursuit of Lafitte. They caught up with him in his backyard as he was climbing up the stairs.
A deputy grabbed Lafitte’s arm but according to the deputies, Lafitte turned around and assaulted the deputies. The occupants of the house, including Lafitte’s pregnant sister (Sandra Cotton), his nephew, and his three young daughters, had come out of the house and pleaded with the deputies to stop beating Lafitte.
By this time, Laffitte was face down on the ground, with one of his hands handcuffed, while a deputy held him in a chokehold, and the other deputy had his knee on his back. Cotton reached for Lafitte’s un-cuffed hand, but was violently kicked away by the deputies. Lafitte’s nephew was also thrown face down on the ground.
While cuffed and lying face down on the ground, Lafitte allegedly pulled an unloaded revolver from his shorts and threatened the deputies. The deputies claimed to have shot him almost simultaneously, to the head and his thigh. The unloaded revolver and a BB gun were recovered from the scene but neither had Lafitte’s DNA or fingerprints.
Lafitte’s wife and three daughters sued the County of Los Angeles for, among other things, wrongful death, negligence, excessive force, failure to properly train, supervise, and discipline, and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The County denied the family’s claims saying that the deputies acted reasonably in the course of their duties. The deputies claimed that the occupants of the house had come out and surrounded the deputies and some were acting belligerently. The deputies claimed they feared for their lives and shot Lafitte.
The police owe a duty to use reasonable care in deciding to use and in using deadly force. The “reasonableness” standard simply asks: Are the officers’ actions “objectively reasonable” in light of the circumstances confronting them?
A police officer, therefore, may use deadly force only if he has a reasonable belief there is an immediate risk that the person being detained will cause death or serious bodily harm. However, an officer who uses excessive force in making an arrest violates that person’s right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizures. This right is protected under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The victim or the heirs of a person who died as a result of an officer’s excessive use of force may be entitled to recover monetary damages for loss of financial support, medical and funeral expenses, and for the loss of love, companionship, care, assistance, protection, affection, and moral support that the decedent provided during his/her lifetime. The heirs may also be entitled to punitive and exemplary damages, prejudgment interest, and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.
Rather than continuing the case to trial, the County of Los Angeles settled Lafitte’s family’s claims for $1,500,000.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com and Facebook/Joe Sayas Law.
[C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]
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