In Orange County, one outcome is as sure as a 5 p.m. traffic jam on the 5, 91, 55, 22, 57 and 405, Republican control of the Newport Beach city council, and a grotesque sewer spill at Doheny State Beach: Some cops are going to falsify official reports to frame innocent citizens.
I long ago stopped counting the number of times officers have been caught lying by irrefutable evidence and then, as if the corruption is a badge of honor, climb in rank in their various police agencies. Sometimes such a case involves simply omitting exculpatory facts from reports. For example, in 2009 a South County housewife who had led a crime-free life found her world turned upside down when a deputy arrested her for shoplifting a $100 jar of face cream. The cop didn't report that a store surveillance recording he had watched had disproved the crime.
A year later, two cops verified a burglary suspect's alibi, but didn't make any notes of that crucial information in their arrest reports. In hopes of sending the man away to prison, those officers later repeatedly assured a jury they knew of no alibi. After a bombshell, contradictory recording emerged of the officers discovering the alibi was truthful, both cops claimed temporary amnesia.
Some cop cheating involves the use of force. In 2008, a group of officers witnessed a white cop unnecessarily fire three, painful Taser blasts into a handcuffed, Latino suspect, who'd been restrained in the back of a patrol car. At the excessive force trial, all the cop witnesses disavowed their original, recorded observations made to a grand jury so that the jury would acquit the shooter.
In October 2010—eight months before Fullerton cops took action that gained them international shame by savagely killing Kelly Thomas—there was another, less sensational but still potent police brutality incident in that city.
At about 2 a.m. one weekend night, officer Jonathan Miller stopped Sokha Leng outside of a bar. Miller threw Leng, who'd been in a verbal dispute with another man, down to the street and pounced on him for not obeying his commands. Veth Mam, one of Leng's Cambodian friends, pulled out his iPhone and began recording what he considered to be excessive force.
(Despite continual attempts by police to scare citizens into not filming their acts, they have no right to make such a demand, a position firmly backed by the U.S. Department of Justice.)
The video shows Miller in control of Leng, a crowd—including Mam—yelling at officers to calm down and about eight other cops (including Frank Nguyen, Ricardo Reynoso, Kenton Hampton and Daniel Solorio) forming a protective human shield while telling observers to "back up."
To this point, all is relatively fine. Citizens were voicing their constitutionally protected freedom to express displeasure at questionable police violence. In the midst of a potential crisis, police—though fully armed and waiving Taser guns—demanded fairly that observers give them additional room to perform their duties.
But then Hampton—one of the six cops who'd later play a minor role in the Thomas beating—decided to approach the onlookers, singled out Mam, knocked the recording phone out of his hand, kicked him down to the street and handcuffed him. One of Mam's friend's, Denserey Tim, picked up the phone and continued recording.
Based on that sequence of events, Hampton arrested Mam, threw him in the Fullerton jail, and then had him transferred to county lockup for several days until deputies allowed him to post bail just before he was set to go to work on Monday morning. As the cops at the scene that night officially recorded their observations, they swore under oath and in writing that they positively saw Mam commit three crimes that justified his arrest: obstructing a police officer, assaulting a police officer and "lynching" a police officer.
Officer Nguyen claimed he observed Mam "jump on Officer Miller's back" and "wrap his hands around Miller's neck and tried to choke him." Who knows what could have happened if Nguyen hadn't been there to be the hero? He documented his own bravery by asserting he was the one who saved his colleague from Mam.
Nguyen wrote his police report—one that oddly failed to mention even a hint of Hampton's assault or handcuffing of Mam—without knowing that Mam's video would later surface and annihilate his credibility. For his part, Hampton didn't file any report, a move that violated procedures. Officers who've engaged in physical contact with a citizen are required to document the incident.
Despite the fictional and missing reports, the case proceeded to trial, where prosecutor Rebecca Reed finally saw the video and showed it to Nguyen. The officer still refused to concede the obvious. Instead, he concocted an amended but still preposterous tale of events that no other witness saw: Mam choked Miller before the iPhone recording and then had been allowed to walk unimpeded back into the crowd without consequence.
(Back in reality: Try choking a cop and see how long it takes to face attempted murder charges.)
According to Garo Mardirossian and Thomas E. Beck, Mam's civil lawyers, Hampton targeted their client because he was angry that police actions were being recorded. As evidence, they noted that, while nobody in the crowd acted physically threatening to the cops, Hampton bypassed several individuals who were closer to Miller (but weren't recording the incident) to get to Mam.
A July 2011 jury handed the Fullerton PD and Reed a defeat; the following month Mam filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the officers, acting essentially as a gang of dishonest thugs with badges, had violated his constitutional rights. In a deposition, Nguyen changed his story once again. The newest version is that he must have seen someone choke Miller, but it wasn't Mam.
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Lawyers for the police have strenuously attempted to crush the lawsuit before it reaches a jury. To their delight, U.S. District Court Judge Josephine Staton Tucker has weakened Mam's claims in several respects by deciding, for example, to dismiss a conspiracy count against the cops. But Tucker also noted Nguyen's numerous, brazen flip-flops, glaring inconsistencies in each of the officers' versions of events and declared that Nguyen and Miller lied on the witness stand at Mam's criminal trial.
"A trier-of-fact could determine that, when confronted with the physical impossibility of Mam being both [her emphasis] the person taking the video and the person in the video, Nguyen and Miller deliberately testified falsely at Mam's criminal trial and misled [prosecutor] Reed to sustain the prosecution," the judge ruled in granting the plaintiff's complaint of malicious prosecution. "Their fabrication caused the action to be maintained when it otherwise would have been dismissed."
In coming weeks—unless the police finally concede to a pre-trial settlement—a jury inside Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse will decide if they want to hold the Fullerton cops accountable for their actions. But, despite evidence for Mam's lawsuit, the outcome isn't guaranteed. Federal juries in Orange County are notoriously sympathetic to cops—most especially when their victim has dark skin.