Updated at 9:04 a.m. Feb. 20, 2012
Al Lanning retired as police chief six months ago, but he along with a dozen officers are being sued by a one-time San Diego mayor candidate who has labeled La Mesa police “thugs,” “rogue cops” and “Wambaugh Wannabees” who violated his rights in October 2010.
Rich Riel of Serra Mesa filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city and La Mesa Police Department on Aug. 1, 2011, alleging battery, false arrest, illegal search and “unlawful dispossession from real property,” according to court documents (attached).
On Friday, an El Cajon Superior Court judge will hear city motions that could force Riel to serve papers again to defendants.
Riel, 64, is a two-time candidate for San Diego mayor (1983 and 1984) acting as his own attorney. He has been involved in more than three dozen lawsuits in San Diego County and two criminal cases.
He said he is bringing the suit himself “because no lawyer will risk his time and efforts on a contingency basis. So far I have I have over $1,000 in hard costs for filings, mailings, copies and research.”
In his original complaint, Riel said he was using a house at 7863 Highwood Ave. as an office on Oct. 8, 2010, with permission of the female owner, who had been a victim of domestic violence by a man named John L. Williams.
When Williams came to the Highwood house east of La Mesa Middle School about 4 p.m. that day intending to break in, Riel kept him out and called police, he said in the filing.
Police told Williams to leave, Riel said, but Williams returned at 8 p.m. and police were called again.
Then “at least three and possibly more La Mesa police officers arrived at Highwood,” Riel said in his complaint.
“The police officer in charge of this meeting identified himself as Sgt. Richards. Riel attempted to make a citizens’ arrest on Williams for trespass, but Sgt. Richards refused to arrest Williams for any crimes including driving on a suspended license.”
Instead, the officer later identified as Bret Richards told Riel that he wanted to search the house, Riel said. And when Riel asked Richards if he had a search warrant, “Richards said he did not need a search warrant to go into the Highwood house,” according to the complaint.
Riel said the officer was wrong and locked the door behind him, but “Sgt. Richards tricked Riel into unlocking the door and stepping outside to allow two La Mesa police officers to come up from behind Riel, grabbing his arms, [holding] them behind him and then handcuffing him,” the complaint says.
Riel says he was taken from the porch in handcuffs and placed in the back seat of a police cruiser.
While Riel was locked inside the cruiser, “Richards and other La Mesa police officers without permission or legal authority conducted an illegal search” of the house, said court papers.
Riel said he asked to call his lawyer, but Richards refused.
“At the end of the hour, Riel was released from the cruiser, the handcuffs were removed and his house key was given to Williams,” he said in the complaint.
On Oct. 13, 2010, Riel said, he filed a citizen’s complaint with La Mesa police, and said then Police Chief Lanning wrote a letter to him Nov. 30, 2010, that his allegations had been investigated but found “no misconduct on the part of the officers.”
On Jan. 14, 2011, Riel filed a claim with the city of La Mesa for damages arising out of the Oct. 8 incident, which the city denied Feb. 2, 2011, the complaint says.
La Mesa police recorded eight citizen complaints in 2010, Lanning said in May 2011. All were classified as “unfounded.”
Riel has been involved in 39 civil suits in San Diego County since 1984 (see attached), and two criminal cases as well—filed in June 1988 and November 1991.
In calling La Mesa police Wambaugh wannabes—a reference to the best-selling author of police novels—Riel said meant that “if there is a conflict between the Constitution of the United States and [the police departments’] unique sense of propriety, the Constitution loses.”
He said in his complaint that “innocent citizens like [himself] have suffered and will continue to suffer their constitutional rights being violated by rogue cops unless this court sends these thugs a message.”
Riel originally sought damages of at least $7,500, plus punitive damages. An amended complaint of Oct. 27, 2011, said the case exceeds $25,000.
He also wants the court to require “proper training procedures, appropriate supervision and discipline procedures and prohibition of excessive force of prisoners because they express complaints and finally an order requiring the establishment of an effective, honest and good-faith system for the investigation of complaints of brutality by La Mesa police officers.”
He said he would show at trial “that the defendants have long acted in a manner consistent with their actions in this case. That these actions are part of the culture of law enforcement that is unique only to La Mesa.”
Friday’s hearing at 9 a.m. before Judge Eddie Sturgeon regards two issues—the defendants’ motion to quash and motion to strike, which involve whether court papers were served on defendants properly.
Riel says he last lived in La Mesa over a year ago, “when this incident occurred. I lived in the house for six days; I spent five months getting back into the house to get my personal possessions.”
A 1965 graduate of San Diego High School and a 1969 graduate of The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, Riel says he works as a “computer tech or DJ, depending on who’s hiring.” He goes by Dr. DJ.
Besides running for San Diego mayor—with a best showing in the primary of 3.25 percent—Riel ran for a seat on the San Diego Community College District board in 1986, taking last in a four-person field.
In 1987, he gained attention when he tried to market bumper stickers that said Death to Spies.
“The idea was to stir up a little discussion and support of the proposal by Sen. Robert Dole … to make spying a capital offense—a proposal that, in light of recent espionage scandals, Riel believes makes capital sense,” said the Los Angeles Times.
Riel told the newspaper: “You can see the level of spies that we have: They’re all mercenaries. They have sold out for money. Because they know if they get caught, it is not a capital crime. … Instead of robbing a bank, they’re robbing our country.”