Contempt of Cop?
By Tommy A. Purvis
The creation of the Crime Against Peace Officers (CAPO) Prosecution Unit in the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office makes the legal overreach that a police misconduct specialist alleges is already taking place official.
The 15-member unit of prosecutors assembled last month will be thoroughly trained in peace officer use-of-force tactics and skilled in choosing favorable juries for trials. The additional expertise will come with the goal of eliminating plea bargains that the DA’s office claims will often reduce a felony assault on a peace officer to a run-of-the-mill misdemeanor charge of obstruction or delaying.
“Criminals who assault peace officers represent a threat not only to the officer, but also to the safety of the entire community, and to the foundations of our criminal justice system,” San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos told the Weekly via a press release last month. “However, the culture of the criminal justice system has at times failed to treat law enforcement officer victims with the consideration and attention they deserve.”
The DA’s office claims there have been 6,000 cases of crimes against police officers countywide in the last years. The CAPO unit offered up a 4-year-old incident in Victorville that involved a San Bernardino County Sheriff Deputy Maria Gascon and a Crip gang member as an example. A high-speed chase ended with a bullet being fired that narrowly missed the deputy.
With more prisoners being released from behind bars early under AB 109 Criminal Justice Realignment, the DA claims that the cases of violence against peace officers is likely to increase.
Jerry Steering, an Irvine based police misconduct specialist, told the Weekly that cases involving allegations of violence against peace officers do deserve more careful examination. Through thousands of court cases Steering has found that DA’s offices spread across the Southland often prosecute persons for so-called crimes against peace officers under four far-reaching penal codes.
Steering told the Weekly that the majority of these cases are built on the bruised ego of a member of law enforcement, and the most over abused criminal statue on the books—California Penal Code 148(a)(1). The vagueness of this law allows for a misdemeanor charge against anyone who “willfully resists, delays or obstructs” a peace officer for what Steering fondly likes to refer to as “contempt of cop.”
Up to 90 percent of the “contempt of cop” charges are bogus Steering told the Weekly. Many of the charges are due to frame ups to justify a police officer’s use of force, unlawful arrest or some other commonly committed constitutional violation. And most of the other charges come from “strained theories” or “misunderstandings” of law by public prosecutors.
But Steering told the Weekly that it can cost upwards of $100,000 to defend oneself against these seemingly simple misdemeanor charges. Worse, many of the DAs assign “contempt of cop” cases to young prosecutors who are looking to climb the ranks. The ambition and full force of the criminal justice system behind them make them more difficult to overcome.
A California Public Records Act request that was made to DA’s office before the creation of CAPO found that there were 2,081 “crimes against police officers” were already prosecuted countywide last year, and there were another 2,340 cases prosecuted in 2011. Some of these cases even involved felony charges under California Penal Code 69, which Steering told the Weekly that the San Bernardino County DA’s office already prosecutes at a higher clip than surrounding areas.
Christopher Lee, a spokesperson for the DA’s office, told the Weekly that there was a concern the statistics the Weekly was looking for might be distorted to tell a different story. Lee told the Weekly “contempt of cop” is a slang term that the stats we were provided has nothing to do with.
With the creation of CAPO these cases are sure to rise. Ramos told the Weekly via a press release that he has the responsibility to change a culture in the criminal justice system and ensure that everything possible is done “to deter, prosecute and punish those who attack, threaten or interfere” with law enforcement officers. And the key word here is “interfere.”