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Police association asks court to dismiss lawsuit

Attorney for officers says the action seeks to stifle free speech.

January 28, 2014|By Bradley Zint | This post has been clarified, as noted below.

An Orange County Superior Court judge heard oral arguments this week on motions that could potentially strike a lawsuit filed against Costa Mesa's police union, its former law firm and a private investigator.

On Monday, in their respective anti-SLAPP motions — Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation — attorneys for the Costa Mesa Police Officers' Assn., Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir and private investigator Chris Lanzillo contended that the lawsuit, which alleges harassment and intimidation, stifles the defendants' First Amendment rights.

The complaint, filed in August by Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, is being used to gain a political advantage, argued Jerrold Abeles, who represents Upland-based Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir.

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"This is a speech issue," Abeles told Judge Gail A. Andler in a Santa Ana courtroom. "This is a political advocacy issue."

The councilmen's lawsuit, which also includes Righeimer's wife as a plaintiff, claims that in August 2012, Lanzillo, who was hired by Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, followed Righeimer home one evening from a Costa Mesa bar owned by Councilman Gary Monahan and reported Righeimer as a possible drunk driver.

An officer went to Righeimer's Mesa Verde home and conducted a field sobriety test, which Righeimer passed. The mayor later released to the public a receipt for two Diet Cokes from the evening.

The association cut its ties to the law firm soon after the incident and claimed no prior knowledge of Lanzillo's actions.

But while the firm and police union attorneys argued that what they did over the past few years falls under free-speech rights — such as congregating at City Hall to voice opposition and creating a billboard during the election season — the councilmen's attorneys argued there was illegal activity.

Among the allegations are that a GPS device was placed on Mensinger's car during the 2012 election season, according to the lawsuit.

The device tracked Mensinger's movements and was periodically removed so its contents could be downloaded. The police union has denied any knowledge of the GPS tracking.

"They know they can't win on that," said Vince Finaldi, the councilmen's attorney. "It's not free speech."

Righeimer and Mensinger's defense team is seeking the court's permission to gain additional evidence, known as a motion for discovery.

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