Slow-Motion Tran Wreck

Did Westminster police arrest video-store owner to quell Little Saigon protests?

Photo by Mark SavageDocuments recently obtained by the OC Weekly reveal that Westminster police knew Truong Van Tran was engaged in video piracy almost three years before his 1999 arrest—but did not move against Tran until his politics set off massive street demonstrations in Little Saigon.

A Sept. 6, 1996, Westminster police report shows that officers answering an alarm at Tran's store that day discovered some 60 VCRs looped together and recording Asian soap operas in the attic—evidence of an illegal video-duplication business. That same year, Westminster police raided stores throughout Little Saigon and arrested 10 video pirates.

But not Tran. His arrest came almost three years later, in March 1999, as protesters demanded the video-store owner remove from his store a Vietnamese flag and a poster of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese communist party founder. When Tran refused, massive anti-communist demonstrations outside his store brought traffic to a halt and made international headlines. At the height of those demonstrations, on March 5, 1999, police responding to a burglary call at Tran's store said they discovered more than 147 VCRs in his attic. Confronted with that evidence, police officials say, they had little choice but to arrest Tran.

Tran pleaded innocent to the charges but waived a jury trial. He was convicted in August 1999—not of piracy, but of misleading labeling—and sentenced to 90 days in county jail. An appeal kept him out of prison until last month.

"Truong Van Tran was not singled out because he was a communist agitator," insists Westminster Police Sergeant Marcus Frank. "We were called out to his location, and you cannot ignore what's in your face when you are on the premises. The angle that this guy [Tran] was somehow singled out is a fallacy."

Police and prosecutors made the same argument throughout the trial—that they arrested Tran only because they had stumbled onto his operation. But Ron Talmo, Tran's attorney, says he handed prosecutors a box of illegal videotapes and urged them to investigate.

"We gave them the names of five stores that were doing the same thing, and none of those stores has been prosecuted," Talmo said. "The judge ruled that evidence to be irrelevant to our case, but the Westminster PD could have followed up on it. Instead, they did absolutely nothing about what we found."

Frank said he was certain that other storeowners have been arrested and fined since 1996, but he couldn't recall any specific cases.

"It's always been our position that the police needed a solution to the stalemate that was occurring in Little Saigon around Tran's store," Talmo concluded. "The solution was to arrest Tran for doing something that everybody else was doing—and for which nobody else has been punished."

 
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