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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Dear PORAC Legal Defense Fund, This email has been weighing on my heart and should have been sent a long time ago. However, time seems to move fast even though your life has been put on hold. I have been on administrative leave since December of 2012. In April of 2013, I was arrested for the performance of my duties. Since the administrative side this case has not been resolved, I won't be getting into specific details regarding my case. However, I will say that I never thought that my life would turned upside down by doing the job that I love, and doing it in a way that I had been trained. I have been in Law Enforcement for 10 years, and I have been paying my monthly dues all along. I never really understood how important paying dues might be for me, I just thought it was the "cost of business". After being arrested, I understood the real worth of that investment. Because of politics, my case was given the "full court press". On January 3rd of 2014, the case against me was dismissed. It took no less than 5 experts to convince the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office to request dismissal. The time, effort, and money that this case cost couldn't have been endured by me as the sole provider of a family of four. LDF was there, big time. The panel attorney's under LDF were the best in the business. In the uncertain time during the criminal process, I couldn't have imagined how much help they could be. What a relief to know that LDF had my back. I am used to defending those who can't defend themselves. That's my job. When I was defenseless, LDF and the attorneys assigned to my case were my advocates and defenders. I thank you. My criminal attorney said it best at the conclusion of my criminal case: "Adam and his family are thankful that they can now move forward. The evidence showing Sgt. Laird was innocent was overwhelming. The expert EPD hired said that the suspect was rising up when Sgt. Laird pushed him back to the ground. The two experts that the DA’s office hired said that the force was reasonable and appropriate. The defensive tactics instructor who trained Adam said he acted consistent with his training in apprehending a high risk suspect in a dangerous situation. In total, five separate police practices experts reviewed the case and unanimously said Sgt. Laird acted appropriately". "It is hard to imagine what it must be like to risk your life apprehending a known gang member only to be charged with using excessive force when the suspect stated that he did not even feel the contact at issue. It is simply bizarre that Sgt. Laird was ever charged with a crime". Thank you. My family and I will forever be grateful for your service, Sergeant Adam Laird
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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.
- 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.
- Christopher Boyd Carlsbad POA
[My representative] was an outstanding attorney to work with. Even though I did not receive a desirable outcome entirely, I was exceptionally satisfied with his representation. Thank you.
- 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.
- 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 !!
- Brendan Dolan Milwaukee PA
Everything went very smooth and they handled everything! Thank you.
- Chris Moore Palo Alto POA
No Complaints. Great Resource.
- Nicholas Ward Antioch POA
[ Representative ] did a great job. My case was extremely complicated and difficult. She did a great job.
- Nancy Page Aurora PA
I didn't end up needing his service but he was awesome in what conversations we had before the matter was resolved. Very valuable - LDF!
- Alfredo Hernandez El Centro POA
[My representative] was very attentive, [informative] and knowledgeable. He spoke very clearly and explained things in ways easy to understand. [He] made me feel like he truly cared about what was going on with this case and me. Not to mention [he] was funny and witty, traits which made him trustworthy and someone who would stand by me and other police officers.
- Brian Schopf Elk Grove POA
Keep up the good work.
- Carlos Gonzalez Oakland POA
Very well informed group.
- Brad Young Oakland POA
[ My representative ] is an awesome attorney.
- Jeff Stanley Upland POA
Excellent program, no one should be without this coverage.
- Roman Fernandez Inglewood POA
My representatives were always well-prepared and organized for hearings and meetings. Their efforts, hard work and full support is truly appreciated.
- Alex Camarillo LASchool P A
[My Representative] did an excellent job with my case. He was very professional and kept me well informed throughout this case. Thank you for an awesome job.
- William DeWitt CPPA
Everything was awesome...could not be happier!
- Robert Hartman Contra Costa Co DSA
Quick response, experienced and knowledgeable attorney which assisted in every step. [My representative] kept me apprised through the process. Thank you.
- 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%
- Robert Curato Anderson POA
He did a great job for me!!! He always returned my phone calls within 24-hours. He showed an interest in my case and we were able to get the issue resolved in less than 45 minutes. Thank you for being there when I needed the legal assistance.
- Gary Silva East Bay Region Parks POA
Thank you for providing this service. My experience with LDF was very much to my satisfaction.
- 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.
- Robert Muelberg Denver PPA
I could not have had a better attorney. [My representative ] went way above and beyond his duties. I would not have had a better experience with my representative. I believe that the LDF is the single most important benefit a police officer could have!
- Phillip Flores Oxnard POA
My attorney was excellent. I would use her again.
- Chad Sakamoto National City POA
Although this incident was unfounded, it's still stressful. My LDF rep kept me informed and kept "work" at work.
- Michael Kan Palo Alto POA
I have always been and will continue to be a strong supporter of LDF and would not work as a police officer without it. I am extremely happy with the service I have received both from LDF and [my representative].
- Linda Mendez Imperial Co Prob and Corr
I'm very pleased with the services offered by the LDF. I feel so fortunate to enjoy the benefits of having the membership. The services provided by LDF to its members is simply 110% professional, supportive, great!! LDF care for its members is reflected by the quality of Best Law Firm offered, simply the best!
- Miguel Suarez Monterey Co DSA
[My representative] was very knowledgeable and courteous. He knew his stuff, and I couldn't have asked for a better guy to be on my side on this matter. Thanks.
- 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.
- Jaime Kim Oakland POA
My rep did a good job. First we met and he explained that there might be culpability on my part but not nothing close to the allegations. I appreciated his honesty as we have all done things that can be taken out of context so it was important he told me to realize that.
- Joseph Barrett LA Airport POA
I was very well represented by a professional. I felt well represented and got great advice.
- Larry Fitch Shasta Co DSA
My LDF rep was great, always returned my calls quickly and kept me up to date with what was going on with the case. Thank you.
- John M. Laser Oceanside POA
[My representative] always took my calls or returned them within hours. Put my mind at ease and kept me well informed. LDF is well served by this law firm!
- Doug Plumhoff Ridgecrest PEA
Great job by all! Always great to know LDF is there when needed.
- James Stephenson Petaluma POA
Outstanding service. Thanks.
- 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].
- Albert Contreas Imperial Co. DSA
Thank you for your services.
- Thomas E. Lorente III Bart POA
[My representative] did an excellent job! I would highly recommend him to any officer in need of LDF services.
- Yvonne Heuston ERS/SPPOA Supervisors
My representative was outstanding and knew what to lookout for and how to handle situations as they appeared. He told me what to expect and how he proposed to handle the hurdles. Just telling what to expect helped put me at ease as the situation was so foreign to me, and intimidating.
- Patricia Goss San Anselmo POA
[My Representative] is fabulous! Thanks for all the exra work she did for me!
- 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
- Brad Young Oakland POA
[My representative] is an excellent attorney and I am very happy he picks up the phone and answers my questions whenever possible.
- Christopher Delaney Upland POA
Your rep was very personal. Even though my case involved something minor, your rep made me [feel] my case was his most important. I am very satisfied with my LDF team.
- Steven Mayorga Ventura County DSA
I was well represented and very glad to have LDF. Thank you.