California Police Abuse and Police Brutality
12/30/2005 - Wrongly accused, Rick Reinhardt spent nearly 10 months in a Santa Clara County jail charged with murder. Now he'd like some money for time served.
In a federal lawsuit filed last week, Reinhardt is suing just about everyone involved in his case of mistaken identity: the Santa Clara County District Attorney, the county itself, the San Jose Police Department and even the public defender's office, which succeeded in righting the wrong.
The Santa Clara County Counsel's office did not return a phone call Monday. City Attorney Rick Doyle said he would not comment because the city had not been served with the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says that on Feb. 22, 2004, somebody shot to death Pete Bianco and hid him under the car cover of his Corvette.
A friend, Laura Derrickson, went to check on him at his Maroel Drive home in San Jose with no luck. In a second visit, though, she and her husband Robert found Bianco's body in his garage.
On Feb. 29, 2004, police received an apparently helpful call from Robert Mays to the Crime Stoppers anonymous tip line. It was Reinhardt who probably did it, Mays said, because he and Bianco were involved with the same woman. Police took the tip seriously, so much so that they began surveillance of Reinhardt's home.
On March 1, 2004, they executed a search warrant on Reinhardt's Redwood City cottage. Inside, they found a Browning semi-automatic pistol, keys to Bianco's home and methamphetamine, all under his mattress -- and all of which, it turns out, was planted there by Mays.
Mays admitted it later, and he abruptly stopped his trial early this month and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. On Jan. 23, he will be sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
The lawsuit says the San Jose police lied to entangle Reinhardt in the crime.
"At one point during the questioning," the lawsuit says, "the officers suggested to plaintiff that they had DNA evidence, an eyewitness, and video tape, all placing him at the scene of the crime. Even when presented with such persuasive, although false, evidence, plaintiff denied being at Bianco's home the day he was killed."
The case unraveled with the help of Melinda Hall, a deputy public defender assigned to Reinhardt.
She said she knew he was innocent and kept telling prosecutors the same. In time, the police started grilling Mays, and he confessed.
The lawsuit asks for no specific amount of money, but seeks "compensatory and general damages against all defendants."
12/29/2005 - A police officer pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he forced himself on an 18-year-old woman while on duty, authorities said.
Officer Michael Turkington, 35, is facing four felony counts of false imprisonment, forced oral copulation, furnishing marijuana and committing the acts while on duty, the San Francisco district attorney's office said. He was arraigned in San Francisco Superior Court on Friday after being arrested earlier this week at his home in San Mateo.
The judge reduced bail from $500,000 to $150,000 and ordered Turkington to sign a protective order requiring him to stay away from his accuser.
07/07/2005 - San Francisco - Two San Francisco police officers who were already facing criminal charges for allegedly providing firecrackers and alcohol to three underage girls are now facing police misconduct charges that are to be received by the Police Commission Wednesday night.
Arkady Zlobinsky, 36, and Michael Turkington, 34, had been working when the alleged incidents occurred last summer, charging documents say.
On June 30, Turkington allegedly drove a 16-year-old girl and two 17-year-old girls, whom he had met two days prior, in a police car to a park in the city's Sunset District and gave them a bottle of vodka and a bottle of a Gatorade for a mixer, according to charging documents.
The girls didn't drink the alcohol but took it with them, according to the charges against him.
On July 4, Turkington and Zlobinsky allegedly gave the same three girls some confiscated fireworks and three bottles of Corona beer, charging documents say.
Later that same night, when they got off duty, the officers allegedly made physical advances to two of girls. The girls, however, declined their advances, charging documents say.
The officers have been charged by the San Francisco District Attorney's Office with conspiracy and furnishing an alcoholic beverage to a minor.
If convicted of the misdemeanor charges, each officer faces up to one year in county jail and fines exceeding $10,000.
Their next court appearance is set for July 13, according to Bilen Mesfin, spokeswoman for the district attorney's office.
06/13/2005 - A California Highway Patrol officer has been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving after he crashed his motorcyle into a Mill Valley bicyclist. Both CHP Officer Denis Gallotti and the bicyclist -- Samuel McMillen -- suffered serious injuries in the Sunday collision.
Gallotti is a 22-year CHP officer. He was airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and listed in serious condition on Monday.
McMillen was taken to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Terra Linda with several fractures. He was also listed in serious condition.
The cause of the accident remains under investigation.
Police find that they can beat a black man for only $250
06/13/2005 - Convinced that a jury would not convict two Palo Alto police officers accused of beating a black motorist after their first trial ended in a mistrial, prosecutors allowed the men to plead no contest Tuesday to minor charges that carry a $250 fine and no jail time.
A police watchdog group expressed outrage that the Santa Clara County district attorney allowed police officers Craig Lee, 42, and Michael Kan, 27, to enter the plea -- which has the same effect as a guilty plea -- to public fighting, an infraction that will allow them to return to work.
"The message of this decision is that there are two types of justice, one for the police and one for the everyday person," said Richard Konda of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, noting that the trial jury deadlocked 8-4 in favor of conviction. "If Kan and Lee had not been police officers, surely the district attorney would have retried the case and would not have plea-bargained the felony charges down to an infraction.''
Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Peter Waite said that, after considering a retrial for more than a month, he and top officials in the district attorney's office decided they could not win a conviction on the original charges of felony police brutality and misdemeanor battery.
"I think that justice was served,'' Waite said after the hearing before Judge Andrea Bryan. "We did our best to hold the police accountable and get a fair result for the community.''
Waite said the plea deal and the vigorous prosecution show that police misconduct would not be tolerated. He noted that the Palo Alto Police Department will install video cameras in police cars, and has begun training officers to avoid similar clashes in the future.
Lee and Kan, both Asian American, were accused of clubbing and pepper- spraying Albert Hopkins, 59, on July 13, 2003, after they encountered him sitting in his parked car. Officers had received two reports of suspicious behavior by a man in a parked car.
When the officers asked Hopkins for identification, he angrily refused, cursing police and accusing them of harassing him.
During the trial, the prosecutor described the police officers as incompetent rookies who didn't realize they had no authority to question or detain Hopkins because they had no indication he'd done anything illegal. Defense attorneys countered that Kan and Lee were dutifully investigating a series of burglaries and clubbed and sprayed Hopkins only after he ignored their commands and nearly hit Lee with his car door.
Hopkins, a longtime Palo Alto resident who required surgery on his knee after the clash, did not respond to a request for comment.
His brother and attorney, Joe Hopkins, accused prosecutors of going easy on the officers because Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu is running for district attorney next year and doesn't want to alienate police unions.
"I think police officers can take this as a signal that you can do whatever the hell you want with impunity,'' said Joe Hopkins, who won his brother a $250,000 civil settlement from the city.
Sinunu replied that the district attorney's office has earned a reputation for vigorously prosecuting police misconduct. "This decision had to do with the fact that there was a deadlocked jury and we really believed that there would be a second hang (if the case were retried).''
Kan's attorney, Harry Stern, said his client was relieved to have the case settled. Lee's attorney, Craig Brown, called the settlement a fair resolution. A former prosecutor, Brown scoffed at criticism that the district attorney was lenient, saying Santa Clara County has the toughest stand on police misconduct in the Bay Area.
06/13/2005 - A Vallejo father formally accused two police officers Wednesday of assaulting him with excessive force after he checked on his teenage son, who had just been shocked with a police stun gun.
Kevin A. Trapps alleges that Vallejo officers Dustin Joseph and Jeremy Huff "jumped me from behind" and Huff "kicked me and twisted my wrists to the point I thought he had broken them."
He alleged that the two slammed him against a hospital wall and a police car, and held his handcuffed arms painfully high behind his back.
In the complaint and in an interview Wednesday, Trapps admitted to provoking the officers by telling Joseph in crude terms that he wished the teenagers had harmed the officer during the Taser incident. But Trapps said the force used in his arrest was excessive.
Several senior police officials failed to return calls seeking comment about the complaint, which was filed Wednesday with the department's internal affairs section.
Police say Joseph shocked Trapps' 16-year-old son with a Taser at Vallejo High School on Tuesday after the boy and another student got into a fight. After Joseph pulled the two boys apart, police say, the 16-year-old was combative and ignored commands to back off, so Joseph deployed the stun gun out of fear for his own safety.
Police took the 16-year-old to the hospital, as is routine policy in Taser cases since a Vallejo man on drugs died after successive stun gun shocks last year. Trapps went to the hospital to check on his son and was arrested after police say he threatened the officers.
Trapps, 44, said he chose to make his complaint against police public in part to clarify details of his son's own arrest.
"They make him seem like he was aggressive toward the police. No way he would go against a 300-pound man," Trapps said, referring to one heavy-set officer.
When Trapps arrived at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, he said, he spoke to Joseph. He said the police officer explained that he arrested the boy because he would not comply with commands to back away from the fight. Trapps said Joseph told him the boy would be fine, but the officer wouldn't let Trapps see his son because he was under arrest.
"He was totally disrespecting the fact that he could have killed my son," Trapps said, referring to last fall's Taser case that ended in death.
Trapps said he became enraged and admitted telling Joseph, in front of Officer Huff, "I wish one of them kids would have f----d your a-- up." Trapps said neither officer reacted immediately, and Trapps walked away toward the hospital door.
Suddenly, Trapps told the Times-Herald, Huff grabbed him from behind and the two "commenced to beating the hell out of me," kicking him, applying pressure on his back and twisting his arms. Trapps said he did not physically resist.
The handcuffs were "so tight, I feel like my arms are going to break at any minute," Trapps said. "The same cop that Tased my son, kicked my a--. I went to jail without knowing whether my son was dead or alive. That's all I needed to know."
A relative of Trapps who said she witnessed the arrest called it "police brutality." She acknowledged that Trapps cursed at the officers, but she said he was not physically threatening.
Trapps was booked into Solano County Jail on suspicion of battery on a police officer and making criminal threats. He said he posted bail and was released early Wednesday.
Trapps admitted to past violent outbursts, including a conviction in the last several years on domestic battery. He declined to give details, but he said he had no history with the officers who arrested him Tuesday.
A Kaiser security official said none of its officers witnessed the incident, although Trapps' relative said security guards were present. An emergency room manager declined Wednesday to answer questions about the arrest, referring questions to a hospital spokeswoman who said no hospital witnesses wished to comment.
Police officer Joseph has been the target of parental criticism in the past. In March, he broke up a lunch-hour fight at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant by spraying mace into a crowd of about 30 students and others who refused to disperse.
Due to the amount of pepper spray, the fire department was called in to ventilate the restaurant with industrial fans. But police defended Joseph's actions in that case, saying crowds should always follow police orders to disperse.
A top school district official expressed confidence Wednesday in Joseph's decision to use the Taser on the 16-year-old. Joseph is one of several police officers often assigned to Vallejo schools to provide security and head off fights.
"We rely on the police department to make the best judgment to provide for the safety of all students," Vallejo school district spokeswoman Tish Busselle said. "If you let something get out of control, it can have very bad consequences for everyone."
Busselle said disciplinary measures were taken against the 16-year-old student involved in Tuesday's fight. She declined to elaborate, citing juvenile confidentiality concerns.
Suzanne Dickinson, 16, a Vallejo High School student who is a friend of Trapps' son, said she witnessed the Taser incident. Dickinson said she plans to express concerns to school officials today that Joseph overreacted with the Taser because the boy did not challenge him.
"He was not arguing with the cop," Dickinson said. "He wasn't harassing anybody, but they Tasered him anyway. The cop couldn't have been in fear for his safety because (the boy) wasn't coming after him."
A Fresno police officer who is facing a trial for assaulting his girlfriend has been let go from the department. Police say officer Frank Dickinson hit his girlfriend with a chair.
He was placed on paid administrative leave after his arrest, but the department confirmed with Action News that Dickinson is no longer with Fresno police. He still faces a trial for the assault charge.
06/07/2004 - An officer with the Sacramento Police Department is facing felony hit-and-run charges after he allegedly struck and killed an Elk Grove teenager while under the influence of alcohol.
Investigators said Jason March, 29, struck and killed 13-year old Michael Ramirez on Tuesday afternoon as the teen was crossing Bilby Road near Stathos Drive.
According to the California Highway Patrol, Ramirez had just gotten off a school bus and was crossing the street to recover a scooter he had hidden in the bushes. "A Ford Expedition came by and struck the 13-year-old boy," recounted CHP Officer Jasper Begay. "The vehicle slowed and all of a sudden took off."
Witnesses chased the SUV and stopped it about three miles away on Lambert Road. CHP officers arrived and took the suspect into custody at 4:32 p.m. A field sobriety test showed evidence of intoxication.
The driver was quickly identified as March, who has been a Sacramento police officer for nearly three years. March was booked into Sacramento County Jail at 9:50 p.m. on charges of felony hit-and-run, felony driving under the influence, and vehicular manslaughter. According to police records, he was released on a $55,000 bond at 10:36 p.m. He is scheduled to be arraigned on June 7.
The news that an officer had been involved in a hit-and-run while under the influence came as a shock to police officials. "I am stunned really beyond words," said Sacramento Police Chief Albert Najera in a rare night-time press conference. "One of our off-duty officers has committed an absolutely outrageous act against our community."
An obviously angry Najera said March has been suspended and placed on administrative leave, and the chief vowed to "move as quickly as possible to fire him."
Michael Ramirez died instantly at the scene. At Harriet Eddy Middle School in Elk Grove where Michael was a student, students and faculty spent the day struggling to cope with what happened. "When you walk into a classroom and see an empty desk and you know it's not because they've transferred but because they will no longer be with us, it's a pain that's deep," said teacher Lynda Bettencourt. "It's a pain that's wide."
No one at March's Elk Grove home Wednesday would come to the door and a visitor refused to comment. However, neighbors did speak about the young officer. Hector Guerrero said he wouldn't expect police officers to behave as March allegedly did. "[You] expect for them to obey the law that we have to obey," he said. "I mean manslaughter, that's tough."
March has been a Sacramento police officer since September 2002. He is a 1994 graduate of Elk Grove High School. The case is being investigated by the California Highway Patrol.
06/07/2005 - The former sheriff of San Joaquin County was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of home confinement Tuesday on a federal fraud conviction.
T. Baxter Dunn, 58, pleaded guilty in January to a charge stemming from his secret financial interest in a company that wanted to build a power plant at the Port of Stockton. He was accused of threatening to use his position to hurt a rival bid and of failing to disclose his involvement on his official statement of economic interest.
Dunn faced up to two years in federal prison but received a lesser penalty because he pleaded guilty and cooperated in the prosecution of a longtime friend. Dunn also was fined $40,000.
Dunn was elected sheriff in 1990 and won a fourth term in 2002. He resigned earlier this year after entering a guilty plea to the fraud charge. The investigation also ensnared the former head of a state criminal justice agency and two other former public officials.
05/28/2005 - MONTEBELLO - Javier Ovando still uses a wheelchair, has bullet fragments lodged in his hip and a scar above his heart from being shot by corrupt police officers in 1996.
None of that could keep him from smiling Friday, two days after a jury ruled his public defender was negligent in allowing a jury to falsely convict Ovando of assaulting the rogue police officers who nearly killed him.
"It's a good feeling," Ovando said as he ran his hand through the curly hair on his head that hides still another bullet scar.
"The trial was hard. Mentally, I was going back to the hospital, to jail but it was a release.
Ovando, then a 19-year-old gang member, was shot and paralyzed by two police officers who then planted a gun on him and accused him of assault. He was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison, where he spent more than two years until the truth finally came out.
The jurors who ruled Ovando's attorney was negligent also awarded him $6.2 million in damages.
But Wednesday's verdict wasn't just about money. Ovando had already been awarded $15 million by the city of Los Angeles in an out-of-court settlement.
This time he got not only the award but also the jury's vote of confidence.
"This time they believed me," he said.
Ovando's conviction was the most infamous of more than 100 tainted by police misconduct that came to light in 1999 when a former officer seeking a lighter sentence for stealing cocaine from an evidence room blew the whistle on the city's Rampart Division police corruption scandal.
The scandal, in which it was revealed that officers working in the city's rough Rampart neighborhood near downtown beat and framed innocent people, resulted in scores of criminal convictions being reversed. The city has paid out more than $70 million in settlements to victims.
Although Ovando was quickly released from prison, he said he was still filled with rage over what had happened to him and the fact he'd been convicted of attacking the officers.
"I had the money. I was fine, I had everything, but you know I still had this anger and I'm still in a wheelchair," he said Friday as he looked down at his hands, which still shake slightly as a result of the shooting.
His lawyer said Wednesday's ruling gives hope to others wrongly accused who don't have the money to hire private attorneys.
"The public defender's office will be put on notice that they're going to be held to a standard, that even if their clients don't have money they have to do a reasonably competent job of defending them," said attorney Gregory Moreno.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Robert Kalunian said his office will meet with county lawyers next week to decide whether to appeal. He supported Tamar Toister, the attorney who defended Ovando.
"We still believe that Ms. Toister did everything she could, did not commit malpractice and was not negligent," Kalunian said.
Wednesday's verdict represents only one piece in the puzzle that is Ovando's search for peace.
In prison, the Honduran immigrant, who came to Los Angeles alone at 15, learned English and began drawing.
After his release, he began therapy and art classes and is working toward his GED degree. He says he got $9 million from his first settlement after lawyers' fees, enough to live on.
"But I want to paint, and if I can keep with school, get a job. You've got to do something," he said.
The dark memories of his time behind bars still sometimes keep sleep at bay, and his case has isolated him from those he knew and those he meets.
His first night in jail, Ovando recalled, he fell off his narrow bed and couldn't pull himself back up. He slept on the cold floor, his bullet wounds pressed against the concrete.
In the morning, the prisoners were called to line up outside their cells for breakfast. Ovando began yelling, terrified no one would notice him.
Two prisoners eventually lifted the mortified Ovando, pulled on his pants and eased him into his wheelchair.
After his release from prison, he returned to his old neighborhood where, after his settlement, he said he was no longer sure who was his friend and who was after his money. A drug arrest soon after his release from prison led to a stint in rehab and put an end to that part of his life.
He has an 8-year-old daughter who was born while he was in prison, but she's only been to her father's home a few times.
He eventually moved to a new neighborhood, where he began telling people at the gym where he works out that he was hurt in a car accident. Even his art teacher doesn't know what really happened.
Reminded that now that he's back in the news his teacher may soon learn of his past, Ovando looked worried.
"Maybe I'll got to a different school," he said with a sigh.
But a moment later, as the conversation returned to the subject of Wednesday's verdict, Ovando's broad smile returned.