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Officer Victorious Over City of Santa Maria in Court of Appeal

Posted on Monday, October 01, 2001 at 12:00PM

The Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Six, has recently affirmed the decision of the Ventura County Superior Court to reinstate former Santa Maria Officer Tom Radzyminski.

For those of you recently tuning in, here is a recap of events. Tom Radzyminski, a former White House marine and highly decorated LAPD officer, lateralled to Santa Maria PD in 1995 with his wife, Officer Kellene Radzyminski. Then, one ill-fated shift on July 25, 1997, Radzyminski and a fellow officer became involved in an altercation with a suspect. During the melee, Radzyminski struck his head on the pavement, having “his bell rung”. After apprehending the suspect, Radzyminski realized that his ride-along for the day, a teenage explorer scout, also sustained injuries. Radzyminski took the explorer to an emergency care facility where he declined treatment for himself in lieu of giving comfort to his ride-along as she was given medical attention. Due to his injuries, Radzyminski was assigned to the station for the balance of his shift and was not to go into the field unless an officer safety issue occurred.

Unfortunately, at 12:30 a.m., a “request for assistance” call was broadcast by Officer Kellene Radzyminski, causing Tom Radzyminski and two other officers to respond from the station. The officers thought Kellene was being physically assaulted. While backing his unit out, and concentrating on the radio broadcast to ascertain a location, Tom’s unit apparently made slight contact with a mailbox causing very minor damage to the unit. Tom Radzyminski was unaware of the contact. When he later noticed the damage, he promptly reported it to his sergeant and took responsibility for the damage, but was unable to report how it happened.

Immediately after, Tom and Kellene Radzyminski went on their annual vacation. While they were away, chips of paint transfer and tail light fragments were found near the mailbox. The chief of police quickly opined, “There must be more than this” as if Radzyminski was somehow withholding information. When Tom and Kellene Radzyminski returned from vacation, they found that a preliminary inquiry had been started by a commander who told Radzyminski that he could “clear the matter up” with no discipline and sent him to the lieutenant. When Radzyminski reported to the lieutenant’s office, the lieutenant made a surreptitious tape recording of the meeting. Radzyminski, not knowing how the damage occurred, was unable to explain the damage, and again stated that he accepted responsibility for the damage. Radzyminski was ultimately fired for dishonesty, despite language in the investigative report acknowledging that Radzyminski could have experienced “tunnel vision” (which the investigator called “focused attenuation”), and had not felt the slight collision.

The first impartial body to review this matter was an administrative law judge in a hearing over unemployment benefits. The ALJ found that the city’s motives were questionable and found that Radzyminski had not committed misconduct.

Unfortunately, the administrative review granted to Radzyminski by his union MOU did not provide an impartial decision maker to serve as the hearing officer. City manager Tim Ness heard the three-day hearing in this matter where Bill Hadden and Howard Liberman represented Radzyminski. Not only did Ness rubber stamp the chief’s termination decision, he found Radzyminski to be a liar for minimizing his injuries sustained during the altercation in order to attend to the injured explorer scout. The MOU provided that the city council approves the city manager’s decision, and it did, without even reading the record.

Ultimately, with the backing of the Legal Defense Fund, Silver, Hadden & Silver appealed to the Superior Court. There, Judge Zel Canter reviewed the matter with a fair eye and found that Radzyminski had been “railroaded” and that Ness should have been “a tobacco executive,” based on how he went out of his way to find an innocent officer guilty. Canter called Ness “a corporate man, ready to sacrifice the individual’s rights, in my opinion the worst kind possible to be in any position of a judicial office of any sort.” Canter not only found that the city failed to meet its burden of proof, but found that Radzyminski was factually innocent of the dishonesty allegation. Canter overturned the city’s decision of termination. The city, in an attempt to prolong Radzyminski’s unemployment, moved for a new trial. In an order denying a new trial, Canter wrote:

“…it is affirmatively found that [Radzyminski] was unaware of the cause of damage to his police vehicle and accordingly did not lie to superior officers. Petitioner is factually innocent of the charges brought against him in the administrative hearing.”

The city appealed to the Court of Appeal, essentially prolonging Radzyminski’s unemployment for yet another year. On April 11, 2001, Liberman successfully argued for Radzyminski’s reinstatement. The Court of Appeal, in a decision by Presiding Justice Gilbert, affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court, finding, “The city’s case was based on circumstantial evidence to show Radzyminski should have known that he hit the mailbox. Radzyminski’s case, however, was based on his consistent testimony that he had no such knowledge.”

In strong language, Justice Gilbert praised Radzyminski’s truthfulness throughout this ordeal.

“He had no motive to lie because [the commander] told him the incident was minor and could be resolved without discipline. In all the investigations his position was consistent. [The lieutenant’s] report found that Radzyminski may not have been “cognizant of the collision” due to “focused attenuation.” With this condition, “the officer is so focused upon critical issues that he becomes oblivious of his immediate surroundings.” From this evidence, the court could reasonably infer that Radzyminski did not know he hit the mailbox. He was focused solely on the distress call from his wife. His actions showed candor, not deception.

The department in its zeal to fabricate the dishonesty charge ignored Radzyminski’s candor, which was so apparent to both Canter and the Court of Appeals justices. The city manager, by his decision, and the city council, by its inaction, perpetuated this injustice. Radzyminski and his attorneys were forced to navigate through a “stacked deck” administrative system before reaching judges who were truly fair and impartial.

The successful defense of Tom Radzyminski was truly a team effort. Steve Silver, Bill Hadden & Susan Silver joined in drafting the briefs in Superior Court and the Court of Appeal. The city has accepted the Court of Appeal’s ruling and Radzyminski is returning to work.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.