With a horrified suspect watching, Huntington Beach police planted evidence—a loaded revolver—in the man's car during a DUI accident investigation in January, the Weekly has learned.
The controversial revelation is not now in dispute although cops, prosecutors and city bureaucrats attempted to keep the incident a secret by sealing records and stalling discovery of related documents.
Despite those efforts, the gun incident became an issue during an obscure misdemeanor trial last week at Orange County's West Court in Westminster. Police officers were forced to admit under oath that a snub-nosed handgun had been tossed like a Frisbee about four feet into the trunk of a Hyundai belonging to Tom Cox, the suspect. The loaded gun bounced twice and slammed up against the driver's side of the car's trunk. No bullets were discharged.
Brian Knorr, the uniformed officer who threw the weapon, lowered the trunk lid with the gun inside and stepped back, allegedly waiting for an unsuspecting fellow officer to find it during a search, according to testimony. The officer assigned to search the vehicle eventually located the gun and, startled, turned to Cox holding the revolver in both hands. This officer stared at Cox, who began to panic at the scenario of a weapons charge. Knorr walked over, "elbowed that cop and took the gun back," said Cox.
Deputy Public Defender Melani Bartholomew, who represented Cox, asked Officer Dave Wiederin on the witness stand if he and at least six other officers who were present at the crime scene had laughed in front of Cox when the gun was retrieved.
"Um . . . yes," said Wiederin.
Bartholomew then asked the officer if Cox had laughed about the handgun too.
"No," Wiederin replied.
"Do you still see it as a comical situation?" asked Bartholomew.
"Yeah, it was a little bit funny," he said.
Cox said he didn't definitively learn until several months later that the officers had not filed weapons charges against him. A self-professed fan of law enforcement and TV cop dramas, the 45-year-old Huntington Beach father of two and construction supervisor insisted that most of the officers present at his arrest acted professionally except for the laughter.
But, he says, other cops—including Knorr—acted "like gang members," mocking him, calling him names like "loser" and "slick," and simultaneously yelling a battery of questions and commands at him after they retrieved the planted gun.
"I thought I was in for a butt whipping," Cox testified. "I just thought I was going to die that night. I realize now that they were making me look like a fool in front of everybody."
In August, Cox filed a formal complaint against the officers he says mistreated him. The move put the Huntington Beach Police Department in a quandary. They could no longer deny that a gun had been planted at a crime scene because Cox was able to specifically identify the gun Knorr tossed into his car.
By the time of the late October trial against Cox, however, four officers testified that the gun toss was no reason for public alarm. They admitted that none of them had mentioned the gun in official reports before Cox's complaint. And, though the officers professed amnesia on certain details, they all shared with jurors an identical excuse: the planted gun was merely a prop in a routine "training exercise" for a junior cop at the crime scene.
The explanation seemed suspicious if not farfetched to Bartholomew, who asked Knorr to describe the location of her client when he planted the gun.
"I was unaware of where he was at the time this happened, when the training exercise took place," he said.
Bartholomew followed up, "Isn't it imperative at least for officer safety reasons that you know where a suspect is when you're going to put a loaded gun in his car?"
"Yes," said Knorr.
When Knorr threw the gun, Cox had been standing just feet away and hadn't been handcuffed. "If I was a dangerous person, I could have easily grabbed the gun," Cox said. "Knorr had his back to me. Him claiming it was a training exercise is a bad joke. They made that up."
The public defender also got Knorr to admit that, "This is not the first time I've done it [planted a gun at a crime scene for training purposes]."
But Bartholomew's pursuit of additional facts was immediately blocked by Superior Court Judge Steve Bromberg, a Newport Beach politician elevated to the judiciary last year by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bromberg told Knorr not to answer when Bartholomew asked, for example, if the gun toss had violated his department's policies or if he'd received advance permission from his superiors.
"How many times have you done it?" she asked.
"Objection," said Deputy District Attorney Julie Butler.
"Sustained," said Bromberg, who said he worried that too much information about the questionable police conduct might "inflame the jury."
A police union ally during his past political campaigns for city council in Newport Beach, Bromberg also refused to give the public defender access to two key records in the case: a recorded statement made by a civilian who witnessed police behavior at the scene, and, incredibly, a copy of her own client's statement to a Huntington Beach internal affairs officer investigating the gun incident.
Under Bromberg's direction, officials redacted huge portions of the interviews. He then issued a protective order to prevent the public, the media or even Bartholomew and Cox from learning the contents.
Said the judge, "It's important to protect the privacy rights of the officers involved."
"I've never seen anything like it," Bartholomew told the Weekly. "I'm not allowed to see my own client's statement? Why the secrecy?"
Huntington Beach Police Lieutenant Craig Junginger said his department prohibits the use of loaded weapons in training exercises but declined further comment.
"We have conducted an administrative investigation into the incident," said Junginger. "However, because the investigations were personnel investigations, they are protected and information in them cannot be released."
Officials at other California police agencies say their officers are prohibited from tampering with active crime scenes, or planting evidence as a joke or for training. Bob Stresak—public information officer at POST, a state agency that certifies cops—said the Huntington Beach revelations surprise him.
"I'm not familiar with any training exercise where you're allowed to throw a loaded gun anywhere," said Stresak. "It doesn't sound like a good practice."
Stan Goldman, a law professor at Loyola Law School in LA, called the training exercise explanation "ridiculous, crazy, nuts."
"Why would they throw a loaded gun if it was a training exercise?" Goldman said. "The whole thing strikes me as reckless cowboy cops with too much chutzpah. I've been in many, many trials and I've never heard of anything stranger than this."
Last year, Las Vegas police admitted that they'd planted illegal narcotics in a suspect's car as a "training exercise" for a police dog. Officers claim they forgot to retrieve the drugs, charged the suspect with possession of the planted narcotics, fabricated police reports and then testified in court without mentioning that the drugs had been planted. Later, a citizen review board recommended that one officer be fired and another suspended without pay for four months for their misconduct. Orange County cops routinely say they don't want civilian review boards because they adequately police themselves.
In the Huntington Beach case, Cox told jurors that the planted gun incident had rattled him so much that he had trouble easily passing the field sobriety tests. Blood evidence introduced at the trial showed low traces of alcohol and marijuana in his bloodstream that night. Cox, a former band member, told the jury that two and a half hours before police stopped him at Newland and Yorktown he'd consumed two shots of liquor as well as two hits of pot and then rehearsed on drums for about 90 minutes. (Because of back and hip injuries, he has a medical marijuana permit from a doctor.) A retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's crime lab supervisor testified that the Huntington Beach cops had botched the DUI investigation by failing to perform necessary tests. This expert, who was a defense witness, also declared that Cox had an insignificant amount of intoxicants in his bloodstream when he was stopped.
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The jury—some of whom snoozed during testimony, and one of whom stared endlessly at the court clock—sided with police after brief deliberations. They found Cox guilty of DUI and four other misdemeanors. He awaits a Dec. 15 punishment by Bromberg.
Whether Knorr or other cops faced any reprimand for the gun toss episode is likely to remain a closely guarded secret. Perhaps more disturbing is that the officers testified that planting guns allegedly for "training purposes" was not uncommon. The public may never know the truth. Current conventional wisdom—as expressed by Judge Bromberg—says that officer "privacy" in the performance of their powerful government jobs supersedes public accountability.
After the trial, the public defender shook her head in frustration. "How would you feel if you watched police officers throw a loaded gun in your car, laugh at you and then yell in your face?" said Bartholomew. "You'd be scared out of your mind."