TS - 12/18/2007 City could face hefty bill for Douglas' defense

TS City could face hefty bill for Douglas' defense 12/18/2007

EUREKA -- If the City Council decides to pick up the bill for former Police Chief David Douglas' legal costs, one former prosecutor estimates it could reach the $1 million mark for the city's already-pinched general fund budget.

The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office announced last week that a criminal grand jury convened to look into the 2006 shooting death of Cheri Lyn Moore indicted Douglas and Eureka police Lt. Tony Zanotti on charges of involuntary manslaughter.

Legal experts said the indictments might be a first, as they target the incident's commanding officers rather than those who shot Moore.

As Zanotti's and Douglas' legal teams ready to review transcripts of the grand jury proceedings, questions are swirling about who's going to pick up the tab.

Moore, who had a history of mental illness, was shot by Eureka police officers in her apartment at Fifth and G streets after a two-hour standoff in which she brandished a flare gun, threw items from her apartment and threatened to burn the building down.

Police have said they believed Moore had put down the flare gun when the decision was made to storm her apartment. When officers came face to face with Moore and a flare gun pointed at them, they shot her multiple times.

Zanotti, who is being represented by Redwood City attorney William Rapoport, is covered by the Peace Officers Research Association of California Legal Defense Fund, which covers most EPD officers. The extent of that coverage isn't exactly clear.

Rapoport confirmed Monday that he was being paid by the legal fund “so far,” but declined to elaborate. He said there is no telling what his final bill might be, as the case could be thrown out in the coming weeks or end in a lengthy trial.

The case of who is covering Douglas, represented by local attorney Bill Bragg and the Santa Ana firm of Ferguson, Praet and Sherman, is a bit more complicated.

Councilman Jeff Leonard said the shooting of Moore occurred at a time when Douglas was not covered by the association's legal fund, leaving it unclear who will pick up the bill.

Bragg said Monday that he was under the impression the city of Eureka “has accepted the responsibility to pay for Mr. Douglas' defense.” But, Eureka City Manager David Tyson indicated it was not a done deal.

Tyson said in civil suits, the city is obligated to pick up the bills for legal defense funds, which are paid through the city's insurance carriers. Criminal matters, like the case of Zanotti and Douglas, are different, Tyson said, and the council has the choice of whether to cover the costs.

”I think it's a choice because the council, not just our council but any council or board of supervisors, would want to have the opportunity in a criminal matter to hear at least some of the facts and make an informed decision on whether they want to provide a defense,” Tyson said.

The determination the council will likely have to make, Tyson said, is whether Douglas was acting within the boundaries of his position as police chief. Tyson said the city has no insurance carrier for criminal cases, and any money it offers for Douglas' defense would come directly out of the city's general fund.

City Attorney Sheryl Schaffner said any discussions regarding funding Douglas' defense would be held in closed session, and would not be made public until a final decision is made by the council. The council has a closed session agenda item at Thursday's meeting about Douglas' case.

If the council did decide to pick up Douglas' tab, Schaffner said a budget adjustment would be in order to ensure the funds were available.

And that could be a hefty sum, said local attorney Jeffrey Schwartz, a former prosecutor in the district attorney's office.

Schwartz said an attorney of Bragg's caliber probably demands between $300 and $400 an hour for criminal defense, and estimated Douglas' defense team would put in at least 2,000 hours on the case, assuming it goes to trial. On the low side, that comes out to $600,000. But, Schwartz said that is far from the total.

In addition to straight attorney fees, Schwartz said, in a case like this especially, the defense is going to need experts, and lots of them. Not only do each of the experts command fees, Schwartz said, but there are also the travel, hotel and meal expenses associated with attorneys traveling the country to speak with them.

”I'd say, minimally between both (fees for attorneys and experts), you're talking a million bucks easy,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz also said it is likely, once news of the indictments hits the wires and is widely disseminated, police chiefs and departments around the country will start up a defense fund, fearing a guilty verdict could set a precedent for tactical situation police commanders across the country.

Officers at a Dec. 10 court hearing, where Zanotti and Douglas appeared before a judge for the first time, said no such fund was in the works. An arraignment, where the officers will enter pleas, is set for Feb. 21.

While Schwartz was hypothesizing about what a full blown trial might cost in legal fees, Douglas' lawyers were readying to attempt to ensure it doesn't come to that.

Bragg said Monday he received word from the court that the grand jury transcripts had been compiled, and he would pick them up today. Those transcripts, Bragg said, will have a lot to say about how Gallegos lead the grand jury through the proceedings, and consequently about whether this case will make it to trial.

”Chances are there will be some things we will want to challenge pre-trial,” he said. “Given the DA's unique theory, which, frankly, I don't know what his theory is in this case, if I were a betting man, I would bet we are going to take a very hard look at this (transcript) and probably file a motion of dismissal.”

If the case does make its way to trial, Schwartz said law enforcement officers from around the country will likely pitch in $100 here and $50 there for a legal defense fund, which might not be bad news for Eureka.

”Really, the city should be the one out there trying to rally police chiefs,” he said.

Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or tgreenson@times-standard.com

No comments: