By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
At one point last year, it appeared as though Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ promise to hold dishonest deputies accountable was on par with the public stance taken by her crooked predecessor: empty talk. That’s when prosecutors accused deputies of employing a code of silence to protect a fellow officer from an excessive-force conviction after he twice fired a Taser into a seated, handcuffed suspect. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas blamed the failure to convict deputy Christopher Hibbs on the deceitful testimony of fellow officers. At the time, Hutchens dismissed any notion her staff had testified falsely and called allegations of a cover-up absurd. You could almost hear the disappointed moans of citizens craving real reform at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD).
But a rare glimpse into the often-secretive inter-workings of the $800 million-per-year department shows that Hutchens privately viewed the Tasing incident with disgust after all.
It wasn’t easy finding out her real stance. Hutchens is banned from specifically addressing the issue. Thanks to police-union lobbying, California’s Legislature constructed a nearly impenetrable shield against public knowledge about whether dirty cops are punished—or, amazingly, rewarded. Nonetheless, the Weekly has obtained documents proving that, in September 2009, the sheriff fired Hibbs, an action that had been rumored but never officially confirmed.
What had not even been whispered about is that Hutchens has also attempted to punish four other involved deputies—James Wicks, Robert Gunzel, Bryan Thomas and Trent Hoffman—for “dereliction of duty.” According to documents outlining the results of an OCSD internal-affairs probe, they failed to take appropriate action at the scene and ignored an obligation to report their knowledge of the unauthorized September 2007 Tasing. It appears the sheriff believes there was a code of silence at the report-writing stage—but not during Hibbs’ Fullerton trial. Rackauckas—who says he proved deputies’ trial testimony departed from their sworn grand-jury statements—must be puzzled.
It’s not clear from OCSD documents why the sheriff differs with the DA on the testi-lying point. But to support her stance about pre-Hibbs-trial events, Hutchens had Assistant Sheriff Tim Board memorialize the department’s findings.
“After conducting a fair, thorough and impartial review of the department’s internal-affairs investigation, I concluded that [the deputies] had been derelict in their duties and that discipline was necessary to address their misconduct,” wrote Board. “Specifically, I believe that [the deputies] had an affirmative responsibility to intervene, investigate, question and ultimately report the deployment of an electronic control weapon by one of their partners on an unarmed, handcuffed, seated arrestee during the course of a custodial interrogation.”
Board, an accomplished cop, also noted that the deputies had abused their “awesome . . . incredible power.”
Jurors in the Hibbs case were unaware of the testifying deputies’ misconduct. They voted 11-1 for acquittal, resulting in a hung-jury mistrial. Many on the panel said they assumed the officers were credible witnesses because they wore badges, and one juror opined that it was okay for deputies to lie for one another.
The sheriff doesn’t hold that view. On May 6, she notified the deputies that their punishments ranged from 12 hours to 80 hours without pay and reassignments to lower-paying positions. Her move was countered swiftly. Using Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs lawyers, the deputies filed a lawsuit. Of course, they wanted their complaint sealed from public view, a request Superior Court Judge William M. Monroe sanctioned.
Yet based on briefs filed in the ongoing case, which I obtained, we know the deputies aren’t claiming innocence. They’re arguing that the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights (POBR) prohibits the sheriff from punishing them after a one-year statute of limitations. Nicholas S. Chrisos and Leon J. Page, lawyers for the sheriff, claim that the notice of pending discipline was timely because of the complexity of issues and the volume of targets. On June 15, after a barrage of legal filings by both sides, Monroe rejected the deputies’ call for a preliminary injunction against Hutchens until the case is settled. In a court minute order, Monroe noted that the deputies’ position doesn’t have “a probability of prevailing on the merits.”
Hutchens is apparently now free to enforce the discipline, but her actions will be cloaked by POBR. Meanwhile, lawyers for Ignacio Gomez Lares, the Tasing victim, have filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court. Lares seeks $5 million in damages for what he alleges was police abuse.
THE SHERIFF SWEEPS OC’S CITIES
The historic race for sheriff is not yet a month old, and the candidates have returned to their normal lives. Craig Hunter is running daily operations at the Anaheim Police Department. Bill Hunt is working full-time as a private investigator and hosting a Friday-afternoon KUCI radio show. The victorious Hutchens is now implementing her policies as this county’s first elected female sheriff.
But we should note Hutchens’ domination before we close the books on the contest. Though she was the least-comfortable campaigner, the rookie candidate handily took all 34 of the county’s cities. Even where Hunt’s supporters anticipated outright victories, they didn’t materialize in a single location. For example, South County cities such as Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel all went decisively for Hutchens.