One of the Bay Area’s most distinguished civil rights lawyers has taken on the case of a sexually-exploited teen suing the City of Oakland and several other Bay Area jurisdictions.
Attorney John Burris is now representing the teenager known as Celeste Guap in press reports. Guap alleges that while working as a sex worker in Oakland, she was exploited by numerous police officers from multiple agencies. Oakland North is not using Guap’s real name because she was a minor when the alleged abuse began.
Press reports have indicated that Guap had sexual contact with officers from the Richmond Police Department, the Oakland Police Department, the San Francisco Police Department, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and a federal agency, some of them while she was underage. Guap’s previous lawyers filed claims totaling well over $100 million on her behalf against several jurisdictions, including the cities of San Francisco and Oakland.
Burris said that Guap specifically requested him as her attorney. He said when her family initially approached him, he was unable to take on the case due to other obligations, but the family contacted him again and he decided to accept.
Burris said he primarily represents victims of police misconduct. “It seems to me that these were legitimate issues that we have to bring some clarity to, because you can’t have police officers—and shouldn’t have police officers—engaging in the sex trade as police officers,” he said.
Guap was previously represented by attorneys Pamela Price and Charles Bonner. Price announced in a press release last week that she will no longer be representing Guap.
“I believe that [Guap] deserves a second chance at a first class life. I would never abandon her in that effort. Effective immediately, however, I regret that I will no longer be representing her as her attorney,” Price wrote in the release.
Burris is well known in the Bay Area for his work on behalf of plaintiffs alleging wrongdoing by police officers. Along with attorney Jim Chanin, he represented 119 plaintiffs who sued the city in the early 2000s over allegations of brutality and falsification of evidence by a group of officers who called themselves the Riders.
Burris also represented the family of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old African-American man killed by a BART police officer in 2009. In that case, BART paid out multiple settlements to members of Grant III’s family amounting to several million dollars.
Burris is also currently representing the family of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old African American man shot 20 times by San Francisco police officers last year.
In early September, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced disciplinary action against twelve officers in relation to Guap’s allegations, and shortly after, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced she will file charges against seven officers allegedly involved in the scandal. In the past week, several of the officers faced arraignments and pretrial hearings. Another Oakland officer was also charged with engaging in prostitution and obstruction of justice in an apparently unrelated case.
In response to a question from Oakland North following her State of the City speech earlier this month, Schaaf said the city may pursue further action against officers in the future relating to Guap’s allegations. “We will wait to see what happens with the criminal charges, and that may impact further actions by the city,” she said.
Michael Rains, an attorney who was in court on October 4 representing an accused OPD officer and who frequently represents officers during union-arbitration proceedings, has previously said that Guap instigated contact with some of the officers. Burris said that’s not an excuse for officers to engage in illegal activity.
“These are police officers and they’re grown men. And they have a code, a professional code, that would suggest that you should not involve yourself in illegal conduct with prostitution,” he said. “A 19-year-old girl cannot make you dishonorable.”
Burris did not discuss how much money he will be seeking on behalf of Guap, saying that he is “very early into this case” and is still reviewing the issues. He said the money he is seeking on behalf of Guap may help her to move on with her life. But, he said, money alone is not sufficient.
“Obviously you measure in money, but you also… hope to use that money to put that person in a better space. Here, money is not going to be the ultimate answer for her,” he said. “I’d like to make sure that she is on the right track of self-sufficiency outside of the sex trade business.”