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U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson hinted Monday that he’s already made his decision about whether the massive “Riders” civil suit will be one trial or many. But for now he’s keeping that decision to himself. Henderson said he’ll wait until the plaintiffs and the city have another round of settlement talks before he rules on the defense motion to split up the case. In Allen v. City of Oakland, C00-4599, plaintiffs attorneys argue that many police officers — from beat cops up to Police Chief Richard Word — engaged in misconduct that violated the civil rights of 117 men and women. They seek damages and police department reforms. Among those accused in the suit are fired Oakland police officers Jude Siapno, Matthew Hornung and Clarence Mabanag, who are in trial in criminal court. A fourth officer, who was part of the group nicknamed the “Riders,” is a fugitive. On Monday, Henderson was supposed to consider the city of Oakland’s argument that the civil case should be split into separate trials. The city’s outside counsel, Gregory Fox, of San Francisco’s Bertrand, Fox & Elliot, wants to divide the case up: separating out police department brass — who are accused of creating an environment that allowed the alleged misconduct to occur — from the individual officers. If the motion is granted, the plaintiffs’ case could be severely hurt, since it alleges that the constitutional rights violations stem from police department leaders. “I believe that I can rule on the [court] papers,” Henderson said shortly after taking the bench, without hearing any of the expected arguments from the attorneys. Even after the judge’s announcement, attorneys for the city of Oakland and the plaintiff managed to exchange barbs during the brief hearing. Attorneys John Burris of Oakland, James Chanin of Berkeley and San Francisco’s John Houston Scott represent 116 plaintiffs. They argued that the motion to bifurcate the case would hurt the plaintiffs planned motion to seek class action certification. “Many issues of the city’s conduct will play into the class action issues,” Burris said in court. Although Burris filed the suit in December 2000, stating that the plaintiffs would seek a class action, little has happened. Fox noted that there had been no motion to certify the class yet and it was unclear when, if ever, it would be made. “I was wondering if you had abandoned that,” Henderson said. Burris’ co-counsel, Chanin, quickly interjected. “We have a right to flesh out issues for the class action until the motion is filed. Fox told you that we have to file a motion [first] — that’s not true,” Chanin said. Later, Henderson said he wanted to wait until both sides went to a scheduled Sept. 20 settlement conference. If the case hadn’t settled by then, he said, he would address the bifurcation issue. Also, the judge extended a stay on discovery for 30 days. The judge also indicated that he would be willing to postpone the civil case until after the criminal trial. A defense attorney for the criminal case, William Rapoport, argued that he didn’t want the accused “Rider” cops deposed until after the criminal trial was finished some time later this year. “We will keep them in mind,” said Henderson. “We don’t want to do anything to jeopardize rights in the criminal trial.” Randolph Hall, Oakland’s chief assistant city attorney, said the city was pleased with the way the judge seems to be leaning. “The court has acknowledged that both sides are working diligently to get the case resolved,” said Hall, who supervises the litigation team for the office. Hall also praised the judge’s efforts to protect the “Rider” police officers’ Fifth Amendment rights. After the hearing, Burris said he was disappointed that the decision was delayed. Burris said 15 plaintiffs from the civil case will testify in the criminal trial. If any of the accused officers go to prison in the criminal case, the conviction will become persuasive evidence in the federal trial, he said. “There is a real benefit that will come to us in a civil trial if they are convicted,” Burris said. Opening arguments in the criminal case are scheduled to begin Sept. 5 before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Leopoldo Dorado.

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