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High court's cell tower ruling favors cities

Decision eases permit pressure on local governments

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court made it easier yesterday for cities to say no to new cellphone towers in their neighborhoods.

In a 9-to-0 ruling, the justices said the federal law that was designed to encourage the growth of the telecommunications industry does not allow cities to be sued for damages for refusing to permit a cell tower.

In the past decade, 140,000 cellphone towers have sprouted up in the United States, but the phone industry says it needs more of them to eliminate ''dead spots."

The court's decision will take some of the pressure off local governments to approve permits for new cell towers, although it does not mean they can refuse all of them.

The ruling was one of three yesterday in which the court overturned decisions of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco.

The decision on cell towers will affect disputes across the country. However, it did not arise from a typical conflict between a cellular phone company and a municipality, but rather from a dispute between a ham radio operator and the City of Rancho Palos Verdes near Los Angeles.

Mark Abrams, the ham operator, erected a 52-foot radio tower on his property. City officials objected in 1998, when they learned Abrams was using the tower for commercial broadcasts, and they denied him a permit to broadcast from the tower.

He sued the city in federal court, seeking an order that would allow him to keep the tower as well as damages and attorneys fees. When the Circuit Court ruled for Abrams, the Supreme Court took up the dispute to decide whether the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allows such damage claims against cities.

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said Congress did not intend local governments to be liable for huge money verdicts in such disputes. It could have ''a particularly severe impact" on small towns and rural communities across the United States if the leaders of the cellphone industry could seek money damages and lawyers' fees, he said.

Disappointed applicants may go to court to challenge a city's decision, but that is all, Scalia said. They may not seek monetary damages from the city, even if officials wrongly denied the permit, he said.

In the other decisions yesterday:

The Supreme Court, voting 5 to 3, restored the death sentence for an Orange County, Calif., murderer who became a devout Christian after he went to prison. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in a 6-to-5 decision, had reversed William Payton's death sentence because jurors might have thought they could not consider his behind-bars religious conversion. A prosecutor had argued that only the crime counts, not what happens after the convict goes to prison.

The Supreme Court disagreed and said the jury almost surely weighed Payton's religious conversion, but they decided he deserved to die anyway.

Writing for the court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the California state courts were right in upholding the sentence, and the jury may well have seen Payton's religious conversion as ''altogether insignificant in light of the brutality of the crimes."

Justices David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying reasonable jurors would have thought they could not consider his conversation as grounds for leniency.

The court, in a 5-to-4 ruling, said police in the Simi Valley area of Los Angeles did not use excessive force when they handcuffed for nearly three hours all the occupants of a house that was raided, even though they quickly learned the people who were at home were innocent.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said the police are free to handcuff everyone when carrying out such a raid to protect themselves. In this case, police were looking for a violent gang member, he said, and therefore, had reason to be cautious.

When a SWAT team burst into the house in 1998, they were looking for a gang member, but instead awoke 18-year old Iris Mena. With guns pointed at her, she was handcuffed in a garage for nearly three hours. Mena sued two officers, contending they subjected her to an unconstitutional seizure. A jury agreed with her and awarded $60,000 in damages, a verdict upheld by the Circuit Court.

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