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Orange County D.A. says there is evidence of deputies' 'code of silence'

Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas says sheriff's deputies at the scene of a Taser incident involving a veteran lawman and a handcuffed man 'softened' their accounts and 'were not truthful.'

May 13, 2009|My-Thuan Tran

After weeks of growing tension between Orange County's top law enforcement agencies, the district attorney Tuesday offered what he said was clear evidence that sheriff's deputies changed their stories and held to a "code of silence" in an assault case that ended with prosecutors dropping charges against a veteran deputy.

The case against Deputy Christopher Hibbs, accused of using excessive force by firing a Taser on a handcuffed suspect, was dropped last month after a hung-jury verdict, with jurors leaning 11-1 to acquit.

District attorney spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder said "inconsistencies" in the testimonies of Hibbs' fellow deputies prevented the case from succeeding and alluded to a "code of silence" between the lawmen.

Her comments sparked outrage from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, which demanded Schroeder's immediate resignation.

On Tuesday, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas made his case, saying several deputies at the scene "softened" their version of events between the time they testified before a grand jury in 2008 and when they took the stand in the assault trial.

"The deputy sheriffs in this case were not truthful," he said, referring to the events on Sept 13, 2007, when Hibbs fired a Taser at Ignacio Lares, a convicted felon with outstanding warrants. Lares was handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car at the time.

District attorney officials said that none of the deputies at the scene reported the use of the Taser in the squad car during their initial write-ups of the incident. It was not until deputies allegedly began making jokes at the station house -- "What's your name? Clack, clack" -- that the event was investigated by the Sheriff's Department, which took the case to the district attorney.

Rackauckas said that Schroeder's statements about the "code of silence" referred only to the assault case and was not a comment on the entire agency. The statement seemed to quell some of the anger Hutchens expressed earlier with the district attorney.

"I was upset because when the statement was made, it seemed to refer to a pervasive code of silence in law enforcement in general, and nothing could be further from the truth," she said Tuesday.

District attorney officials said Tuesday that after appearing before a grand jury investigating the incident, deputies began changing their stories. They pointed to Bryan Thomas, a deputy at the scene, who told grand jurors he felt that use of the Taser in the squad car was not justified. He later changed his position, telling Sheriff's Department officials during an internal interview that it was justified, prosecutors said. He testified in the criminal trial for the defense.

Deputy James Wicks told the grand jury that he never saw Lares resist arrest or struggle while handcuffed and that he saw no reason for Lares to be shot with the Taser in the back of the patrol vehicle, according to the district attorney. But during the jury trial, prosecutors said, Wicks testified he could not see inside the vehicle.

District attorney officials said that several deputies changed their stories about where they were situated around the squad car and whether they could see the suspect being shot by the Taser.

Despite the inconsistencies, Rackauckas said there was insufficient evidence to charge the deputies with perjury. But he said deputies who were found to be lying during testimony should be off the force.

"Would I rather see [deputies] off the force if they are going to lie when they testify? Absolutely," Rackauckas said. "Not only is it bad for the integrity of that particular case, it's just a bad thing all the way around. People learn of it and they question whether any police officers tell the truth."

Hutchens said she believed the district attorney's office "raised some serious questions" and that her department has launched an internal administrative investigation to review the transcripts.

"Any time there is any indication that any deputy may have been untruthful or less than cooperative, that is very serious," Hutchens said, "and we are going to look into it and take any appropriate action."

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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