A federal jury this week held the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) accountable for enforcing a policy that blocked an internal affairs investigator from taking any action for seven months against a deputy twice accused of sexually assaulting a frightened 20-year-old female suspect, a period when a second woman says he raped her.
The panel's Aug. 3 verdict, rendered after less than 30 minutes of deliberation inside U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, is a decisive win for second victim Alexa Curtin, who has appeared with her mother in episodes of Bravo's Real Housewives of Orange County, and losses for fired deputy Nicholas Lee Caropino as well as OCSD.
Caropino was one of several deputies who responded to a June 2014 call in Dana Point. The stocky officer ended up making himself alone with then-21-year-old Curtin. During the event, she says he threatened her to gain obedience, made vulgar comments, forced oral copulation, repeatedly shove his fist and his penis inside her vagina, ignored her painful protests to stop and ejaculated.
Four months earlier, a different woman, this one a DUI suspect, formally advised OCSD management that Caropino ordered her to touch his erect penis through his pants in the parking lot of the Orange County Jail prior to her booking. The deputy left his jurisdiction to visit the woman's home after her release from custody and, while in uniform and on-duty, forced her to have intercourse, according to court records.
The deputy eventually, at least partially, apologized for his behavior and was dismissed in 2015, though District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who has let jail deputies commit perjury in felony trials without punishment because their cheating secretly helped him win convictions, refused to file even misdemeanor charges.
OCSD representatives defended leaving Caropino on patrol duty without administrative action like requiring desk duty until the DUI suspect controversy could be sorted out because deputies had launched a less than energetic criminal probe into their fellow officer's conduct.
Dana Fox, the department's private lawyer, told jurors the policy of suspending the internal affairs case made sense because they supposedly couldn't have anticipated additional criminal activity.
"[The plaintiff] must prove my client was deliberately indifferent, intentionally indifferent [to allowing Caropino to rape her]," Fox said in his closing argument. "[OCSD] officials had to have said], 'I know what the risks are and I don't care.' There's zero evidence of that in this case. That's a tough standard: You knew that was going to happen and you turned away."
Curtin attorney Daniel K. Balaban, who often dominated the courtroom with piercing questioning of witnesses, told the jury a ship's captain or an airline pilot would not be left on the job after being caught intoxicated at work.
"Does it make any sense that we're going to leave a deputy accused of [sex crimes against members of the public] on duty with the risk he could do it again?' Balaban asked.
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U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson made the case relatively simple for the jury by issuing pre-trial rulings that determined evidence supported the conclusion Caropino sexually assaulted Curtin under the color of authority and OCSD maintained a policy that hampered Internal Affairs Unit (IA) probes for extended periods of time.
After a two-day trial, Wilson essentially told the panel to determine if the department's inaction IA policy led to the rape.
Jurors are today expected to begin considering damages Caropino and OCSD, which initially tried to smear Curtin as a liar who craved an imaginary rape scene with a cop, must pay for trampling her constitutional rights from government abuse.
[UPDATE, 4:30 p.m., Aug. 4, 2017: The federal jury awarded Curtin $2,250,000. But she may not see the damages soon. County officials have been hinting at an appeal.]