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Phoenix Officer – Not Guilty

Posted on Wednesday, August 01, 2001 at 12:00PM
Posted by Craig Mehrens

I recently completed the representation of James Contreras, of the Phoenix PD in a criminal case. He was videotaped, allegedly throwing someone down the stairs at the Fiesta Latino in Phoenix. He was also charged with authorizing a false police report concerning the incident, and thereafter lying to the criminal investigator who interviewed him. Some of the conduct of the police department is worth noting, so that those of you who might be confronted with a criminal/internal investigation will know exactly how your police department operates. Your knowledge of this might greatly assist how you would like to proceed when confronted by a criminal investigator.

It is policy of the Phoenix Police Department where they believe that there is not only an internal violation, but also a criminal one, to have the criminal investigation proceed first. As you will see, this is done for very specific, calculating reasons.

First, the facts. For reasons totally unrelated to Contreras, a video camera was set up 165 feet away from the front entrance of the Fiesta Latino nightclub and was manned between the hours of 11 p.m., to 1 a.m. The department was monitoring the action on a five-inch video monitor, and at approximately 12:50 a.m. on March 8, 2000, they perceived what they believed to be Contreras throwing a patron down a flight of stairs. The internal investigators and the criminal investigators met with Chief Woodward and she instructed the criminal investigation to proceed. Chief Woodward also instructed the criminal investigator not to mention the videotape.

Officer Contreras was summoned to the main police station on false pretenses and ushered into an interview room at Homicide. Shortly thereafter, the criminal investigator commenced his interview, first gaining Contreras’ confidence by telling him that he believed he had gone to high school with his brother. He told Contreras that he was involved in a criminal investigation and that he was not going to Mirandize him. He did not tell Contreras that he was the prime suspect.

Unknown to Contreras, the interview was being secretly videotaped. In the videotape monitoring room was another criminal investigator and a lieutenant. During the interview, the investigator took a break and went back to the interview room where the lieutenant, and possibly the criminal investigator, offered suggestions on the interrogation of Contreras. Once the criminal interrogation was over, the lieutenant appeared in the interrogation room and escorted Contreras up to Professional Standards, where he was ordered to answer questions.

The purpose of this article is to let you know that it is often, if not always, wise to invoke your privilege against self-incrimination when being interrogated by a criminal investigator. I know it is inherent in police officers to feel that if they do not answer a question, they are suggesting they have something to hide. It does not matter whether you have anything to hide or not. The investigation is going to proceed whether or not you answer questions, and is certainly not going to stop if you answer questions and deny you are involved. In other words, what do you have to gain by answering a criminal detective’s questions? The answer to that is, absolutely nothing. More importantly, if you do have something to gain, why not speak with a criminal defense lawyer first, and then agree to the interview? Moreover, sometimes the criminal investigator lies repeatedly to the officer/suspect. That was the situation in this case. Contreras was repeatedly told (as the investigator testified at his trial) patent lies.

My advice to my criminal defendants has always been as follows: When confronted by a police officer for questioning, you have three choices: You may, (1) lie to the officer; (2) tell the officer the truth; or (3) respectfully refuse to answer his questions until you have spoken to an attorney. Anyone who takes the first alternative is a fool; anyone who takes the second alternative is a fool, albeit less of a fool. The individual who takes the third alternative, it seems to me, is protecting his interests in the best possible way.

The Contreras story had a happy ending. Once we were able to obtain a clear copy of the videotape, we were able to show a jury that Contreras had not thrown anyone down the stairs, but in fact, it was the force of the bouncer ejecting the individual out of the club into Contreras’ arms that caused the accident. The jury acquitted him in a little over one hour of deliberation. The trial judge found that the evidence concerning the false reporting/information charges (there were two of them) was so weak that he directed a verdict of not guilty at the close of the defense case.

I might add that the cost of representing Contreras in this case was considerable. It was because he was a member of Phoenix LEA and the Legal Defense Fund, that through their support he was able to mount such an effective defense.

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