Sonoma Deputy Acquitted of Homicide and Felony Assault Charges
HARRY S. STERN
Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver, PC
To paraphrase (slightly) General George Patton, “A good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” That is a fitting summation of the case of Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff Charlie Blount, who, despite the practical wisdom expressed by Patton, found himself charged with homicide and assault under color of authority in the aftermath of a car chase along narrow roads in a remote section of the county.
In a profession that has become paralyzed by second-guessing and hindsight, Deputy Blount was the epitome of a man of action rather than words.
In the early morning hours of November 24, 2019, Blount was taking his lunch break at the union hall. He worked graveyard patrol, a shift he had chosen over the majority of his 22-year career. Dispatch broadcast that a car taken in an armed carjacking was rolling toward the western reaches of the county. Blount quickly packed up his meal and headed to his car, even though he was getting off duty in a few minutes. As he later testified at trial, not responding to the call “wasn’t an option and wouldn’t be right,” particularly with his friend and partner Deputy Jason Little moving into position to intercept the stolen Honda. Another deputy, who had checked on the carjacking victim earlier that morning, radioed that the Honda had been taken at gunpoint with a .38-caliber revolver.
Soon thereafter, Little spotted the Honda and, backed by officers from the Sebastopol Police Department heading his way, decided to try to pull the car over. At first, the suspect seemed as though he was going to comply, but he sped off once Little started to get out of his car.
The chase was on. Little, with emergency lights on and siren blaring, followed the stolen Honda at speeds as high as 70 miles per hour on dark, narrow, winding country roads. His sergeant radioed permission to “PIT” the Honda. Little made his move but only managed to tap the Honda. The suspect stopped again. Little got out and shouted orders with his pistol trained on the driver. Little later recounted that he was so close to shooting the suspected armed carjacker that he had taken the “slack out of the trigger,” and only stopped the process of shooting because the suspect drove off again.
Meanwhile, Blount plotted a course to assist Little. He jumped on the highway toward West Sonoma County. He listened attentively to the radio and heard Little calmly narrate the direction of travel and all of the other salient details. Little chased the Honda toward the unincorporated village of Bloomfield. When the Honda briefly slowed to try to navigate a sharp turn at a dead end at the top of a small hill, Little tried to PIT the suspect again. Little forced the Honda off the roadway and onto a grassy area adjacent to, of all things, a cemetery.
Little’s SUV and the stolen Honda came to rest in a tactically challenging position: The front end of the patrol vehicle was in contact with the rear quarter panel of the Honda, creating roughly an inverted V. Thus, Little was virtually face to face with the armed carjacking suspect. Little sensed the danger and quickly moved to the rear of his SUV.
Little began shouting commands at the driver of the Honda while the Sebastopol officers triangulated the suspect at gunpoint. As the Honda driver had done previously, he raised his hands and then quickly moved them down again, out of sight behind the car door.
Blount arrived a few moments later, parked his car and quickly surveyed the scene. He didn’t like what he saw. His partner, Little, was too close to the driver and exposed to potential gunfire. One Sebastopol officer was out in the open, and he could not see the other. The situation seemed to be at a dangerous stalemate. Blount, with 22 years of police work under his belt following 20 years of military service, was the most senior man at the stop. Neither of the two most likely outcomes were good — either the suspect was going to draw his revolver and begin firing, or the officers were going to shoot the suspect when he made another move.
Blount joined Little at the rear of his SUV. The suspect continued to fidget and drop his hands. When the suspect raised his hands, Blount decided to act. By moving closer to the driver, he could see inside the Honda and also give the suspect direct, clear instructions.
Blount quickly walked to the driver’s side of the Honda, just aft of the door. Little followed his lead. At first, the suspect complied with their orders. But when they demanded he open the door, he instead began fumbling with something and again concealing his hands. The suspect rolled down the window.
Blount took this opportunity to grab the suspect’s arm, and both he and Little began struggling with him as he resisted their efforts. Blount punched the suspect on the side of the head. Moments later, the driver bit both deputies, hard. This desperate attack upped the ante. Blount grabbed the suspect by the hair and slammed his head into the window frame. Little tased him. When the taser didn’t work, Blount put the suspect in a carotid restraint. One of the Sebastopol officers broke the passenger side window, and they were finally able to get the suspect out of the car.
As soon as the driver was out of the Honda, the assembled officers and deputies saw that his breathing was labored. They immediately called for an ambulance and soon started CPR.
And then the unfathomable happened: The deputy who had checked in on the carjacking victim looked at the suspect and informed everyone that the man that they had just struggled with was actually the owner of the car. Sadly, despite their best efforts, the Honda driver was declared deceased at the hospital.
It turned out that the owner of the car and victim of the carjacking had negotiated with the thief for the return of the car. In fact, the Honda owner was a chronic methamphetamine addict who lived in a ramshackle drug den with a number of other users. The story was that the Honda owner had slapped the girlfriend of one of his housemates and a fistfight had ensued. According to his statement to the investigators, the housemate (known as “D”) already had the keys to the Honda because he often gave the owner rides. He decided to leave in the Honda with his girlfriend and also take the owner’s revolver, which he may or may not have used to beat the victim.
The Honda owner was certainly the worse for wear after the confrontation with “D.” He had a massive, swollen black eye and a big, bloody laceration on the top of his head. Nevertheless, he refused to stay at the hospital. His personal physician had also explicitly warned him that if he continued to use drugs he would die, so compromised was his health.
Of course, the deputies had no inkling that the driver was actually the owner of the Honda. Moreover, his actions, in terms of fleeing the attempts to pull him over and ignoring commands, only served to confirm that he was the armed carjacking suspect — not the victim.
The entire incident was captured on body-worn camera. The videos depicted a violent struggle that didn’t look particularly pleasant. Unfortunately, at the same time Blount pushed the driver’s head into the window frame, Little’s taser emitted the typical sound of sparking electric current, which made it seem that the driver’s head landed against the window with a sickening crack.
The sheriff of Sonoma County was a career deskman. He immediately panicked. Instead of calmly waiting for the investigation to reveal the facts, he released the video of the incident, accompanied by his histrionic condemnations of Blount. A great leader the sheriff was not. The fuse was lit. The case became international news. Media outlets from California to Europe repeatedly played the video, accompanied by sensational headlines and inaccurate accounts of what had happened.
Had the sheriff only said something like “The video is admittedly disturbing and we are launching a thorough investigation to determine what took place,” the media firestorm would have been abated. But such a display of calm takes a moral courage rarely seen these days.
Given the public outrage, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office convened a grand jury, which promptly indicted Blount for manslaughter and assault under color of authority.
Trial commenced in early December with motions and then jury selection. Evidence began on January 10, 2022. My trial partner was Andrew Ganz, an extremely talented and experienced lawyer who had spent a number of years as a prosecutor. We knew we faced an uphill battle amid the wave of hysterical anti-police sentiment, starkly negative pre-trial publicity and a challenging video record of the event. In addition, we were squaring off against a pair of excellent district attorneys led by career prosecutor Robert Waner, who was joined by Robert Rasp.
The Honorable Robert LaForge presided over the case. Judge LaForge proved himself a remarkably fair and even-handed jurist. Both sides were allowed to present their cases.
The prosecution’s central thesis mirrored the Department’s — that Blount was criminally reckless when he decided to move forward and approach the Honda. By so doing, he had set in motion the chain of events that led to the driver’s death. Blount should have remained behind the patrol car and called for more “resources.” They also suggested some of the uses of force were unreasonable.
Of course, this argument ran counter to what happens in the real world and was an example of the application of 20/20 hindsight that is prohibited by the law.
General Patton knew better. You cannot demand human beings, whether soldiers or cops, to form and execute perfect plans during intense, dangerous, rapidly unfolding incidents. The constitutional standard of objective reasonableness is a bandwidth of choices, not an exact answer spit out by a computer.
Ganz drilled the coroner during cross-examination, revealing the unsound and speculative nature of his causation theory. The coroner claimed that the emotional effect of the driver’s interaction with the police, including the car chase, was what killed him. He had to take this novel approach, since the medical records made it clear that the Honda driver, who suffered from a substantially enlarged heart, hypertension and pulmonary disease, was required to use an oxygen tank and had a lethal amount of methamphetamine in his system, was someone who could die at any moment. Moreover, none of the uses of force would have been fatal to a healthy person.
The highlight of Ganz’s blistering cross-examination was reading the coroner’s prior testimony to him, in which he stated that cause of death was “a flip of a coin,” and asking him if he knew who had said that. After sheepishly acknowledging this quote, the coroner compounded the problems for the prosecutors when he stated, “It comes down to just putting it on paper the way you think best describes the death.” Blount’s life had been upended by these flippant choices.
Blount took the stand in his own defense and articulately explained his reasoning for his actions, as well as his sincere dismay that the driver had died. Other significant defense witnesses included use-of-force expert Jeff Martin and medical expert Dr. Barry Gustin.
After a month of evidence, following several weeks of motions and jury selection, both sides gave closing arguments and the case was submitted to 12 citizens of Sonoma County for their verdict. The jury deliberated for roughly seven hours over two days before unanimously acquitting Blount of both manslaughter and assault, each a felony charge.
As one can imagine, although he was characteristically stoic throughout the proceedings, Blount was ecstatic to have his two-and-a-half-year ordeal finally over. The judge exonerated his bail and he was a free man.
Charlie Blount was very thankful for the jurors’ diligence and patience, for the support of the Sonoma County DSA (especially retired DSA President Mike Vail) and for the PORAC Legal Defense Fund for supporting him and us throughout this ordeal.
Andrew Ganz and I were appreciative of the jury (of course), the professionalism of the District Attorney’s Office — who were worthy adversaries and then some — the support of our other colleagues and the hospitality of the DSA, including President Cody Ebert.
About the Author
Harry S. Stern is the managing principal at Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver, PC. His legal practice is focused on civil litigation and criminal defense, as well as complex administrative matters. Harry has successfully defended peace officers in a number of high-profile criminal trials. He also regularly represents peace officers in internal investigations, administrative hearings, coroner’s inquests, grand jury proceedings and related court actions.