Where would local law enforcement officers twice torment the same innocent man and twice lose resulting California civil litigation with taxpayers footing the bill?
Answer: Orange County, where folks like District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens routinely defend police shenanigans.
The latest fiasco involves Merritt L. Sharp III.
In 1997, Garden Grove police officers raided Sharp’s automotive shop without a court warrant. The cops were searching for Sharp’s son and held the father, guilty of no crime, at gunpoint for nearly an hour. In a rare move here, a jury awarded him $1 million for the police abuse, a finding belittled by the judge, who reduced the amount to a measly $50,000.
As you would imagine, Sharp harbored a distaste for badged arrogance that incredibly got reinforced 16 years later. In Oct. 2013, a group of Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) deputies drove to Sharp’s upscale, gated-community San Clemente home in yet another botched hunt for Sharp’s son, then a parolee.
Officers conducting surveillance saw someone who fit the son’s description fleeing the home’s back door and run onto a nearby golf course. The deputies made a radio transmission to report the target moving away from the house was wearing a black shirt and tan pants. Meanwhile, clueless about the arrest warrant raid, a 73-year-old Sharp answered knocks at his front door and saw three deputies.
This is when lame déjà vu struck.
Claiming they were certain Sharp was in fact his son—despite the 22-year age difference and the fact he wore a light blue shirt and blue jeans—the deputies screamed, put him in handcuffs, threw him to the ground, injured his shoulder, placed him under arrest and, even after admitting their error, kept him locked in a patrol vehicle, where he was confined for nearly an hour.
The deputies told Sharp they mentally struggled to figure out the differences between him and his son, and, besides, they would have been nicer if he hadn’t complained about their error and become angry by their violence.
(Sharp required surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff caused by the deputies.)
Jerry Steering, Sharp’s Newport Beach-based lawyer, told the Weekly the case represents “outrageous police abuse.”
In a resulting civil lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford denied the deputies’ cries for full immunity. A federal appeals panel at the Ninth Circuit considered Guilford’s decision, and agreed in September 2017. According to the panel, the cops—who tried to justify their aggressiveness by claiming they’d feared the unarmed, elderly Sharp—violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We find no evidence to support [the deputies’] inference other than the unsupported speculation that an irritated father might intervene in a police effort to apprehend his son,” ruled presidentially-appointed judges David M. Ebel and N. Randy Smith in their majority opinion. “We decline to indulge such naked conjecture, especially because Sharp was not engaged in any such disruptive activity at the time of the arrest. He was walking toward the officers in an apparently compliant manner. . . The deputies in this case were not presented with anything remotely near the circumstances needed to justify the detention of Sharp.”
Late last month inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, the case quietly closed. Private lawyers representing Hutchens’ OCSD refused to admit guilt but agreed to settle before the matter reached a jury. Sharp will get $250,000.
In April 2017, a federal jury in Los Angeles awarded Alexa Curtin, who appeared on Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County, $2.25 million for enduring OCSD incompetence. According to a federal judge, Caropino raped Curtin while on duty in 2014 after Hutchens’ management team left him on patrol knowing another woman had reported he’d raped her while in uniform. Rackauckas compounded the mess by refusing to charge the deputy.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.