An already-bad PR week for Sheriff Sandra Hutchens got worse this morning when Superior Court Judge Richard King unsealed a grand-jury indictment against a veteran Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy who is accused of using excessive force on a handcuffed suspect.
Deputy Christopher Hibbs (pictured left), a resident of Corona, faces two felony charges and up to three years in state prison if convicted of abusing his authority during a Sept. 13, 2007, early-morning incident near the border of Stanton and Anaheim.
“Hibbs used a Taser on a suspect who was restrained with handcuffs behind his back and sitting in a patrol car because the suspect had refused to give his full name,” said Mike Lubinski, assistant district attorney in charge of special prosecutions. “His action was without just cause.”
Visibly distraught before the indictment was unsealed, the 45-year-old deputy (wearing a suit) wasn’t pleased that he’d been brought to court with numerous other criminal defendants. He was overheard complaining that his prosecutor, Israel Claustro, is “cold-hearted,” doesn’t “understand what it’s like” to be a deputy dealing with dangerous suspects because he works in a “safe office” and has ignored “much worse things” in the past from other deputies.
Hibbs leaned forward in his seat, placed his face in his hands, sighed and shook his head repeatedly--like he was in the middle of a nightmare.
Defense attorney Robert G. Gazley declined to answer specific questions about the Taser use but predicted Hibbs, a 14-year veteran who has been on paid administrative leave, will plead not guilty next month at his arraignment.
“This is a deputy who served nine years in the U.S. Army, won honors for personal bravery during Operation Desert Storm and has a citation for bravery from the sheriff’s department,” said Gazley. “That’s the type of deputy we’re talking about. We believe he did everything he was supposed to do, based on the law and his training.”
During the four-minute hearing, Gazley asked for two favors—that Hibbs be allowed to bypass booking at the Orange County Jail and instead go to the Santa Ana Jail, and that he be released without having to pay any bail. Claustro didn’t object, and King approved the deal.
If the case eventually goes to trial, count on Gazley to highlight what apparently didn’t sway members of the Orange County grand jury, who heard testimony for three days in August: The victim of Hibbs’ alleged abuse wasn’t an innocent, elderly grandmother, but rather Ignacio Gomez Lares (pictured right), a then-31-year-old robber/parolee who was illegally carrying a loaded semi-automatic handgun. When stopped, Lares resisted arrested and attempted to flee.
According to Lubinski, Hibbs “properly used his Taser” to subdue Lares—who had multiple outstanding warrants—on the street, but not after he’d placed the handcuffed suspect into the back of his patrol car.
“There has to be signs of aggression [to use the Taser],” Lubinski said. “Verbal resistance, if that’s the right way to put it, does not justify Tasering someone.”
Ironically, Hibbs—a native of England—was training a younger deputy on the night of the alleged crime.
Two weeks after the incident, Lares pleaded guilty to illegally possessing a loaded firearm and for misidentifying himself to a deputy. He won a 32-month return trip to a California prison cell.
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Hibbs’ trouble began in December 2007 after he requested a transfer from Stanton and a sergeant discovered the excessive-force allegation. The department investigated the matter and then notified the Orange County district attorney’s office, which then conducted its own probe.
Earlier this week, a budding feud between DA Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Hutchens became public over sheriff’s deputies controlling criminal investigations into allegations against fellow deputies. Rackauckas accused deputies of not only repeatedly botching the investigation into Deputy Gerald Stenger, an accused pedophile, but also encouraging prosecutors to drop the case.
In a late-June letter, Hutchens initially told Rackauckas, whose office has to rely on the competence and honesty of deputies to win convictions in court, she didn’t appreciate his criticism on how her department handled the Stenger investigation. When questioned about the matter by reporters this week, the sheriff backed off, stating she didn’t understand the fuss but promising consideration of Rackauckas’ input in the future. Stenger, who DA investigators say molested at least two young boys, escaped prosecution by committing suicide in April.
-- R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly