Policing the Police
Trial Lawyers Doing Public Justice
Attorneys: Browne Greene
Los Angeles, CA
Citizens need the police to protect their rights. But what happens when citizens’ rights are put at risk because a police department covers up the misconduct of its own officers? In Rastello v. City of Torrance, it took three courageous attorneys in California to challenge the local police department and city council and obtain justice for a young man killed by a drunk police sergeant.
Near midnight on August 30, 1984, Torrance Police Sergeant Rollo Green was returning home after a long night of drinking. Making a left-hand turn at a busy intersection, Sgt. Green’s truck cut over the double yellow line, directly in front of 19-year-old Kelly Rastello’s motorcycle. When police officers arrived on the scene, they found Green disoriented and muttering to himself. Though Green smelled of alcohol and admitted to having “a few beers,” he was not arrested or charged. The young man died soon after.
At the hospital, two police officers told Rastello’s parents that their son had been speeding and had run into the back of the truck. They also assured them that the matter would be fully investigated and that a report would be issued in two to three days. Instead, the Torrance Police Department (TPD) issued the report three weeks after the accident and laid the blame for the tragedy on the victim, Rastello, citing his excessive speed.
Suspecting a cover-up of the facts surrounding Kelly Rastello’s death, Kelly’s older brother, Timothy Rastello, a partner with the law firm of Holland & Hart in Denver, retained [Brian Panish and another attorney from the law firm] in Los Angeles to uncover the true story. Little did they realize that they were undertaking a five-year mission to reveal the truth surrounding Kelly Rastello’s death.
Trial lawyers Greene, Panish, and Rastello filed a wrongful death suit against Sgt. Green and charged individual police officers at the scene and the City of Torrance with violating the Rastello family’s civil and constitutional rights to due process. In order to prevail against the City on the civil rights claim, the lawyers had to prove that the City had a pattern and practice of covering up police misconduct in general, and in Rastello’s case in particular.
At the first hint of litigation, the City’s attorneys fought back with a vengeance, using the legal system like a club to beat off all attempts to bring the case to trial. They filed ten separate motions to dismiss, each requiring a response and each ultimately denied by the trial court and on appeal.
The most difficult stages of the case came during the massive discovery spearheaded by attorneys Panish and Rastello. The City objected to nearly every document requested, and continuously stonewalled discovery during the more than one hundred depositions taken by the plaintiffs. It was ultimately sanctioned for perjury, contempt of court, misuse of the discovery process, and obstructionism by two Los Angeles Superior Court judges. Defense counsel were fined a total of $37,500 during four separate hearings. The defendants’ scorched earth tactics inspired one judge to write that their “conduct in this case has been and continues to be an outrage of the most extreme proportion…Defendants have given new meaning to the word ‘stonewalling’ by their…conduct and …blatant disregard for the judicial process.”
Rastello and Panish endured the defendant’s seven separate appeals of the trial court’s discovery orders to the California Court of Appeals and California Supreme Court, which repeatedly affirmed the lower court’s rulings. The dedicated attorneys found themselves spending sixty hours a week on the Rastello case alone.
The most significant discovery battle arose over the plaintiffs’ unprecedented request to inspect 1,200 internal affairs files covering a ten year period and the police personnel records of twenty police officers. Panish and Rastello asserted that the discovery was critical to plaintiffs’ civil rights claim that the City had allowed its officers to engage in a widespread pattern of covering up police misconduct. The City appealed unsuccessfully to first the Court of Appeals and then the California Supreme Court. Finally, Panish and Rastello were given precedent-setting access to the closely guarded records.
In November, 1989, after withstanding a last minute effort by the defendants to dismiss the case, the trial team was ready to bring the case before a jury. Greene, Panish, and Rastello proved the disturbing truth about Timothy Rastello’s death and the Torrance Police Department.
The attorneys established that Rollo Green had been drinking for almost seven hours before the accident, and had driven away from the collision, returning fifteen minutes later. According to the plaintiffs’ investigation, the officers on the scene of the accident deliberately protected Sgt. Green and concealed damaging evidence. The officers failed to run routine field sobriety tests on Green, and neglected to call the California Highway Patrol or the LA County Sheriff’s office. The senior officer at the scene used an untaped radio channel to communicate with the watch commander, rather than the standard taped channels. Other officers falsified witnesses’ testimony and falsely recorded skidmarks which would have pointed to Green’s liability.
Even more shocking were the revelations about the wider cover-up. The evidence these lawyers adduced proved that Green’s drinking problem was well known within the department; in fact, his supervisor brought him to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting a month before the accident. Four months later, Green was again reported driving drunk by a gas station attendant to whom Green had also offered money for sex. Yet again, his colleagues covered up for him. Sgt. Green was never charged, nor did his supervisors ever address his drinking problems.
Most shocking, however, were the internal affairs files, which demonstrated that Rollo Green’s case was just one part of an appalling pattern of police misconduct. For example, the City covered up and failed to report to the District Attorney that one of its lieutenants had sexually molested his step-daughter for several years. The City let several officers off of the hook for the gang rape of a woman. The records also revealed blatant examples of Police Department discrimination against blacks and minorities.
Greene, Panish and Rastello called more than 75 witnesses to testify regarding the practices of the TPD. A former Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Police department testified that the TPD had a history of giving special treatment to its officers, and two former Torrance Police officers attested to extensive police cover-ups.
Browne Greene, in a compelling closing argument, asked the jury to send a message to other police departments nationwide, and send a message they did. After three days of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of $375,000 against Sgt. Green on the wrongful death claim; $5,525,000 against the City of Torrance, the Chief of Police and six police officers involved in the cover-up; and an additional $137,000 in punitive damages against the Chief of Police and five officers.
Following the verdict, the community exerted intense pressure on the City Council of Torrance to change the policies of its police department. The Council has since taken measures to ensure greater public accountability from its police department. Indeed, other police departments have followed the City of Torrance case and learned an important lesson about police misconduct.
The Herculean efforts of Rastello, Greene and Panish are a testament to perseverance. They overcame tremendous odds and beat off every attempt by the city to prevent the Rastello family from pursuing justice and exposing the truth. For this, we honor them as among the outstanding trial lawyers of the year.
This litigadon is officially reported as John Rastello and Geraldine Rastello v. City of Torrance et al, No. SWC74882 (Los Angeles County Superior Ct., Sept. 8, 1989).
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