ALISON BERRY WILKINSON
Berry Wilkinson Law Group
A kidnapped baby. A hysterical mother. A good Samaritan who followed the kidnapper from the grocery store parking lot while he reported the suspect’s travels to dispatch. A rapid rescue of the baby by the responding police officers. A baby reunited safely with her mother.
This successful operation should have been the script from which a commendation was issued. However, for Grover Beach Police Officer Santino “Sonny” Lopez, it was the beginning of an extended nightmare and a two-year battle to overturn his employment termination and restore his good name.
The Underlying Incident
On February 9, 2010, Grover Beach Police Officer Sonny Lopez was dispatched to a “kidnapping in progress” at the Vons grocery store where a 6-month-old baby had been taken from her mother. As he responded, Lopez was advised by dispatch that the victim’s mother and a good Samaritan had followed the suspect vehicle to an address in Arroyo Grande. When he arrived at the address, Officer Lopez was told by the distraught and crying mother of the kidnapped baby that an “old man” had “kidnapped her baby” and was hiding in the locked, dark garage. The good Samaritan relayed to Officer Lopez not only that the man had refused to give the baby back, but also that he appeared “crazy.”
Concerned that the child was in danger, Officer Lopez, accompanied by the Arroyo Grande officers who had also been dispatched to the call, kicked open the locked garage door and made entry. In the dark and cramped garage space, the responding officers executed a rapid rescue of the child and apprehended the kidnapper. After the baby had been recovered and during the time the perpetrator was being taken into custody, Lopez discharged his Taser. The Taser, although discharged, failed to hit anyone or do any damage.
While Lopez’s perception of those tense moments was based on his angle of view during this rescue effort, the camera on his Taser recorded the event from a different perspective. When those perspectives were interpreted as inconsistent, the Department concluded that this veteran officer intentionally misrepresented the event in order to justify his improper use of the Taser. As a result, the City charged Lopez with: 1. being dishonest in his reporting of the incident and 2. using excessive force when he discharged the Taser. Following a Skelly hearing, his employment was terminated.
The Successful Termination Appeal
Pursuant to the City’s personnel rules, a termination appeal hearing is conducted before a hearing officer selected by the city manager. The hearing officer’s findings and recommendations were advisory to the city manager.
Retired San Luis Obispo Police Chief James Gardiner was appointed by the City to preside over the Lopez appeal. After a three-day evidentiary hearing, Chief Gardiner concluded that there was no merit to the dishonesty allegations and recommended that the termination be overturned even though he had found that the Taser use did not comply with policy.
In overturning the dishonesty charge, Chief Gardiner noted that the essential facts about the nature of the incident were not in dispute and that the controversy centered on the 23 seconds of video recording from the camera attached to Lopez’s Taser. The City contended the video showed a demonstrably different set of facts than those represented in Officer Lopez’s report written on the night of the incident.
Despite the discrepancies between the Taser video and the report, Chief Gardiner reversed the dishonesty charge. Several factors weighed heavily in his decision. First, Chief Gardiner noted that the Department could not and did not provide Officer Lopez the opportunity to review the Taser-cam video before writing his report. This failure caused Officer Lopez to report only his perspective and omit any description of the different angle of view his eyes had from that of the Taser-cam. When asked to explain the discrepancies between the report and the video, Lopez stated, “I didn’t see what the video sees.” This was due to the fact that Lopez was in a position of cover behind the driver-side car door pillar, observing the suspect from behind the seat and through the driver’s side tinted car window, whereas the Taser was extended by Lopez’s arm downward around the driver’s seat and extended into the cab of the vehicle. Also persuasive was the testimony from an expert who explained how the Taser-cam recorded using infrared lighting, which gave a clearer and brighter picture of the events than Officer Lopez could see in the “pitch black” garage using human eyes.
Chief Gardiner also took into account the fact that the underlying call was urgent and emotionally charged, which was a perception factor that did not exist when viewing the Taser-cam video in the calm confines of the hearing room. Chief Gardiner was particularly influenced by the testimony of Force Science Expert Jeffrey A. Martin, a retired San Jose Police Sergeant, who testified about the effects of stress on human behavior, auditory and visual perception and memory. Chief Gardiner found Martin’s testimony “informative and persuasive,” and noted that it reinforced his own professional experiences where both lay witnesses and police officers gave a sincere and truthful recounting of what they saw or heard that “proved to be demonstrably incorrect based on other evidence.”
Finally, Chief Gardiner said that he “was struck from the beginning that it was Officer Lopez who intentionally took out the Taser to document what happened,” and therefore, agreed with my argument that “it defies logic that Officer Lopez purposefully misrepresented what occurred when he knew there was a recording of the event because he himself chose to turn on the Taser with its camera.”
The City’s Rejection of the Hearing Officer’s Decision
The City rejected the advisory decision and upheld the termination using the original grounds cited in the discipline notice. As a result, the PORAC Legal Defense Fund authorized an appeal to Superior Court pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5.
The Superior Court Decision
After reviewing the entire administrative record and exercising her own independent judgment, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Dodie A. Harman not only agreed that there was no basis to find Officer Lopez untruthful, but she also found his use of the Taser justified.
In so ruling, Judge Harman noted that Officer Lopez’s perception of the incident was consistent with that of the Arroyo Grande officers who were also present, that the Taser-cam recorded from an entirely different perspective than the involved officers and that because the camera records only at the rate of 10 frames per second, “every movement seen by the human eye during this same minute will not be recorded on the Taser-cam” and that “human factors cannot be recorded.” Judge Harman also found that “[t]he testimony of Jeff Martin is particularly persuasive in analyzing all of the evidence. What witnesses see and hear during a stressful event may vary considerably from one another and certainly will vary from a recording watched frame by frame in the calm, non-threatening, non-stressful environment of an office.”
The Court further held that there is a difference between a “mistake or misperception” and a “misrepresentation.” Judge Harman stated: “Officers, like any witness, make mistakes; they may perceive something in the heat of the stressful encounter that later, on calm reflection, seems unreasonable. That, however, does not make it a false reporting nor does it make it a misrepresentation.”
As to the discharge of the Taser itself, Judge Harman found it was justified and thus reversed the findings by both the City and the hearing officer. While Lopez did not make a verbal warning prior to discharge, as required by the policy, the Court found that was not significant. Judge Harman noted that “officers have to make split-second decisions under circumstances with less than optimal information” and that “Officer Lopez was not in a position, based on the surroundings, to assist Officer Johnson in any other way in gaining control over the suspect.”
Judge Harman’s decision was issued two days before Christmas, a welcome and wonderful gift to Officer Lopez’s family. Officer Lopez has now been reinstated to the Grover Beach Police Department, although complete implementation of the award is still underway. Sonny Lopez is grateful to the PORAC Legal Defense Fund for its support and funding, without which, he could not have afforded to aggressively defend his honor and reputation.
About the Author
Alison Berry Wilkinson is the principle attorney in the Berry Wilkinson Law Group, a law firm dedicated to providing effective, quality representation to public safety employees in civil, criminal, disciplinary, and collective bargaining matters. She is assisted in this enterprise by associate attorney and Force Science Expert Jeffrey A. Martin, a retired San Jose Police Sergeant, as well as Labor Relations Representative Mark O’Connell, a retired Alameda Police Sergeant. Formerly a founding partner at Rains, Lucia & Wilkinson, Alison continues to actively and aggressively advocate on behalf of peace officers statewide.
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- Jorge Garcia San Joaquin Co Corr Officers
No criticism to give. Very well.
- Rodney Kirkland Oakland POA
Being a police officer in the city of Oakland, I appreciate the services that are offered.
- Jeff Stanley Upland POA
Excellent program, no one should be without this coverage.
- Tai Pena-Hornung Oakland POA
Those who foolishly feel LDF is not a valuable resource, do so only because they have not yet needed legal representation.
- Christopher Walters Antioch POA
My LDF rep was very attentive, and courteous. She made every effort to keep me informed, and kept my best interests at the front of the process. I was very satisfied with my LDF rep, and the entire process.
- Doug Plumhoff Ridgecrest PEA
Great job by all! Always great to know LDF is there when needed.
- Derwin Longmire Oakland POA
Outstanding [law firm] - incredible firm. And, LDF was easy to work and correspond with.
- Rick Stephens Alpine CO DSA
My representative was very good. I highly recommend my lawyer to anyone.
- Dennis W. Ostini Lake County DSA
[My Representative] was fantastic, knowledgeable, professional and easy to talk and work with. Even though the allegations lodged have not been resolved, [My Representative] continued to communicate with me, to offer his assistance.
- Dan McDow San Luis Obispo POA
[My representative] is the poster face representative of the greatest attorney (representative) that anyone could possibly ask for. She gets a 12 out of 10 star rating. Nobody works harder.
- George Fierro El Monte POA
I am a firm believer that LDF serves an essential part in the assistance to protect an officer's POBR & in the integrity of an investigation or complaint. I highly recommend the law office of [My Represenative].
- Jonathan Smith San Diego D.A. Investigators
I couldn't be happier or more satisfied with my LDF Representative, the process and the outcome of my case.
- Allison Clark Twin Cities POA
[My representative] is the best attorney LDF has. Her attention to details, professionalism, and intelligence were off the charts. If I did not have her as a rep I would probably be out of a job. She is fair and she was honestly concerned about me, my family and my case.
- Cherie Rye Lyon Co SEA
I am very happy with the service I received from LDF. I am grateful that our association includes LDF as part of our dues.
- Noe Cordero San Diego POA
Thank you for your help. I feel very secure as you assisted me.
- Korey Lankow Assn Highway Patrol of Arizona
Outstanding service from bottom-to-top.
- Gerhard Wallace Santa Clara Co DSA
I think that [my representative] did a great job in presenting my case. I would recommend her to any deputy (officer) facing disciplinary action. My case was minor compared to other cases but [she] still did a professional job.
- Melissa Geraci Oakland POA
This is my 1st time using LDF and was very pleased with the service I got. [My representative] was so friendly & always returned my calls & even called to update me without provocation.
- Oliver Sansen Concord POA
In 14 years I have never had to deal with an "IA." [My representative] was wonderful & put my mind at ease throughout the entire process. Thank you!
- Joe Charvez Santa Clara Co DSA
I could not be happier with the interest, work put into my case, and assistance from [my representative]. Thanks !!
- Shandon Murphy San Mateo POA
Great work! Thank you so much!
- Kip RIngen Lake Co DSA
My LDF rep kept me well informed concerning the progress of my case. I was extremely satisfied with the service I received. Thanks.
- Steven Mayorga Ventura County DSA
I was well represented and very glad to have LDF. Thank you.
- Rachel Tyner Transit EOA of San Diego
All the LDF representatives were very courteous and attentive with a punctual response to all of my concerns, inquiries and appointment scheduling. My representative was very informative about the legalities and kept in contact with me regularly. He was also very patient and straight forward. I would definitely want to use the LDF again and felt more confident through my proceedings because I had representation!
- Kerry Carlson Midpeninsula Ranger POA
I have held leadership positions in our POA most of my career. Because of my role as President and Vice President I have been a target to management. I feel that if it were not for LDF I wouldn't have a job
- Gary J. Foppiano Oakland POA
[My representative] has been in my corner for 28 years. I have been represented by this firm probably 6 times in my career from minor to major discipline cases with a great outcome for me. They're batting 100%
- Juan Espinoza Fresno DSA
[My representative] did a great job. He is both thorough and well educated. I would use him again.
- Michael Shephard Suisun City POA
LDF is a very valuable resource. I would not do this job without it.
- Brent Teasley ERS/Reno PSAEA
[ My representative ] was bogged down with multiple cases when he represented me, but I feel he did an excellent job. I would not have wanted anyone else to represent me during a very troublesome time.
- Andrew J. Brice Santa Maria POA
As always... an excellent result.
- Andrea Salas Sonoma County DSA
[My Representative] was great! Thank you.
- Anthony Alonzo South Gate POA
Very pleased with the way the process was explained to me. Received updated info faster than I expected. Overall a good experience in a not so good situation. Thanks to LDF.
- Brendan Dolan Milwaukee PA
Everything went very smooth and they handled everything! Thank you.
- Jack Ellis Lompoc POA
An excellent plan. Very valuable to its members.
- Nicholas Belliveau Sebastopol POA
High quality service, proficient, well informed. Overall, very happy with experience.
- Greg Harman Kensington POA
[My representative] is the best!!
- Jason Boust Sanger POA
My rep was very helpful in explaining the processes and stayed in contact throughout the ordeal.
- Steven Moorehouse Redding POA
You guys are Great! Very professional and well informed. THANK YOU!
- Steven Moorehouse Redding POA
Thank you for your help.
- Christine Farmer Tehama Co DSA
Mine was a fairly simple situation and I may not have needed representative. I am glad I called for help, it gave me peace of mind and reassurance.
- Dennis Leach National City POA
[My Representative] is a knowledgeable attorney and I would highly recommend him to anyone needing representation.
- Grace Castro AFGE Local 2455 – Laredo, TX
My representative was very kind and showed he cared when explaining what my legal rights were when dealing with an internal investigation.
- Marshall Henderson Vancouver Police Officers Guild
I have used LDF in 3 OIS's. Each time I have been very well taken care of. I highly recommend [ representative ] and the PORAC system. Well done and thank you.
- Matthew Gardner Colorado PPA
I would not want to be an officer without this coverage. It was great to have it and kept my mind at ease.
- Tamboura Nettingham Claremont Custody Center EA
My representative was an outstanding rep. I was very fortunate to be represented by her and the firm should be very proud to have her in it. She's courteous, smart and aggressive when needed. I would not ask for anyone else, if any other situation evolved, she's the best. Thanks.