Federal magistrates seen as a
strategic trial choice
By America Hernandez
Civil rights attorneys fed up with ever-shortening trial time limits in the Central
District said they are increasingly considering stipulating to magistrates, who are able
to give cases the time they deserve before jurors.
Crushing caseloads and the need to prioritize criminal suits may factor into district
judges’ requests for civil parties to streamline their presentations, but those bringing
suit say that the push to single-digit maximum hour counts is too extreme.
“District court judges have this stopwatch justice they try to impose on civil
litigation and I have been burned too many times,” said Thomas E. Beck, of the Beck
Law Firm in Los Alamitos, which specializes in police misconduct cases.
“Some take a practical approach to time limits and are realistic, but I recently had a
judge who gave me five hours to try my entire excessive force case with 12 witnesses,
when both sides said we needed five days,” he added.In August, the 9th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals denied Beck’s request for a new trial in an unpublished
memorandum, finding that U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal did not abuse his
discretion in imposing the five-hour limit, and that Beck “failed to explain how the
time limit substantially prejudiced the presentation of his claim.” Alan Feiman v. City
of Santa Monica et al, 14-56299 (9th Cir. Aug. 8, 2016).
This month Beck took a different tack, agreeing with defense counsel Howard D.
Russell of the Long Beach city attorney’s office to have Chief Magistrate Judge Patrick
J. Walsh preside over their excessive force trial instead of a district judge.
The parties weren’t pressed for time, he said, but there was a trade-off: The burden
was higher, as Walsh requires both alternate jurors’ votes to count toward the
mandatory unanimous verdict.
Co-plaintiff’s counsel David S. McLane, partner at Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt
LLP in Pasadena, said it was well worth it.
“Both sides got a full, fair trial, and though I was very concerned about having to
convince eight instead of six jurors, I understood the court’s rationale, which was that
if we can get six of them we’ll get the rest,” McLane said, explaining that the one or
two holdout jurors would eventually come around.
“Walsh also gave each side five peremptory challenges during voir dire instead of
three, which really led to a great diverse jury that was crucial” to the victory, McLane
The consolidated suits involved two Hispanic men who were beaten with batons by
Long Beach police at 2 a.m. when attempting to inquire why the officers were
questioning a friend on the sidewalk in front of their house, according to the
complaint. Contreras v. City of Long Beach et al, 13-CV3227 (C.D. Cal, filed May 6,
2013); Vazquez v. City of Long Beach et al, 12-CV9923 (C.D. Cal, filed Nov 20, 2012).
A jury awarded the two plaintiffs a collective $1.6 million on Friday, not including
attorney fees, which legal observers believe to be the largest non-lethal excessive force
jury verdict in Long Beach history.
“There’s no way either side could have called all of the 16 witnesses and gotten a
fair trial if we had the time limits the district court is imposing now,” McLane said.
Beck agreed, saying: “If you have three independent percipient witnesses and their
testimony is not redundant, like we had in this case, it would be a due process
deprivation to not allow them to testify.”
Olu K. Orange of the Orange Law Offices in Beverly Hills said he was lucky a recent
wrongful death case of his had hard DNA evidence backing his plaintiff client’s claims,
otherwise he could have easily lost in light of U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner’s
eight-hour trial limit.
“In police cases, the plaintiff’s attorney has to educate the jury on all the training
an officer has received, as well as all the devices an officer could have made use of, so
that the excessive force would not have occurred, which is very time-intensive,”
Orange explained. “When that time is taken away from you, it severely hobbles you in
meeting that burden of proof.”
Because Orange was able to show that his client’s DNA had not been on a knife
found at the scene, which police officers claimed the client used to threaten them,
“the burden was flipped to them, and they didn’t have enough time to explain away
the evidence” under the time constraint. Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles, 09-CV1592
(C.D. Cal., filed Mar. 6, 2009).
Despite the $1.7 million win, Orange said it was detrimental to his case to have
only an hour and 28 minutes to argue damages for a child who had lost her father in
the wrongful shooting.
“Prosecutors aren’t filing these cases, so for families, the one shot they have at
justice is the civil case, and you’re cutting them off at the knees with these five- and
eight-hour time limits,” Orange said.