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Manhattan Beach Police Officer Cleared of Criminal Charges

Posted on Saturday, February 01, 2003 at 12:00PM

It was just supposed to be another traffic stop. At least that is what Manhattan Beach Police Officer Eric Eccles thought when he activated the overhead lights of his patrol unit to stop a 1965 Oldsmobile on December 29, 2001. He never imagined that he would be sitting in court as the defendant in a criminal case charged with assault under color of authority and filing a false report. Least of all, he never imagined that another officer would falsely accuse him of committing the crimes. But that is exactly what happened.

After pulling the Oldsmobile over, Eccles and fellow Manhattan Beach Officer Patricia Picker contacted the occupants. Eccles contacted the driver who told him that he “burned out” one last time before putting the car away for the night. Picker, who was on the passenger side of the car, observed the passenger to appear extremely nervous. Eccles determined that he would just cite the car and let the driver go home.

A couple minutes after Eccles and Picker retuned to their unit to write the citation, the passenger door of the Oldsmobile flew open and the passenger bolted from the car, bounding over a six-foot fence into the yard of a residence. Eccles, not knowing if the passenger was fleeing to destroy evidence, or was wanted for a warrant, gave chase. He broadcasted that he was chasing a suspect and followed the suspect on foot. Eccles kept the suspect in sight, jumping over a couple fences and eventually to the top of a garage. When he got to the top of the 10-foot garage, the suspect jumped off.

Eccles followed, lowering himself to the alley behind the garage. At that time, a unit was roaring down the alley trying to catch up with the suspect. Eventually the officer in the unit, Manhattan Beach Officer Joe Guzman and Eccles determined that the suspect was hiding in one of two yards. The search became more focused when they found a watch and shoe near the fence separating the yards and began a search of the yard.

Guzman began searching one side of the yard, while Eccles was going to clear underneath a patio deck in the yard. The deck, which was about five feet above the ground, had a lot of items stored underneath it, such as chairs, paint cans and a pile of wood. Eccles navigated his way around the debris until he was under the darkened deck. Eccles was feeling as though the suspect couldn’t be hiding here and was just about to broadcast to other units when he saw a sock-covered foot protruding out from behind a piece of wood which was propped against the wall.

He had holstered his weapon earlier to use his radio and only had his flashlight in hand. He attempted to get the attention of Guzman who was still in the yard. However, Guzman did not acknowledge him. Because of the close quarters and the darkness, Eccles did not think that he could back out with out tripping over something. He knew that the suspect was aware that he was less than a foot away. He had to do something quickly.

Using the element of surprise, Eccles threw the wood aside, exposing the suspect, Daniel Chance. Chance lunged toward Eccles, grabbing Eccles’ left calf area. Eccles reacted by striking Chance in the knee with his flashlight. Chance reached toward Eccles’ collar area and grabbed hold of his vest. They both went down to the ground, Eccles losing his flashlight in the fall.

The noise from the struggle drew the attention of two sergeants who were in the alley immediately behind the yard. They raced into the yard, jumped over the fence and assisted Eccles in cuffing Chance. Guzman was nowhere to be seen after Chance had been cuffed.

Eccles, who injured his hand in his struggle with Chance, went to the hospital to have his hand examined. When he returned from the hospital, he learned that someone had complained about his arrest. Naturally, he figured that it must be Chance. But to his surprise, he was told it was Guzman, not Chance, who complained about his arrest. He did not know what was wrong with the arrest and no one told him. He wrote his arrest report, including his use of force, submitted the report and went home.

The next day Eccles received a call to report to the station. When he got to the station, he was told to turn in his badge and gun, and that he would be placed on indefinite administrative leave. Still, no one told him what Guzman’s allegations were. He was informed that a criminal investigation was going to be done by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Justice System Integrity Division.

Eccles immediately contacted the PORAC Legal Defense Fund and was assigned to the law firm of Mounger, Gonda and Seki. Eccles met with Darryl Mounger and Bill Seki. Mounger, who represented Stacy Koon, and Seki, a former prosecutor with Los Angeles County, were extremely familiar with the DA’s office and tried to get some answers. When the word from the DA’s office was that they thought they had a strong case, Seki enlisted the services of retired LAPD Officer Robert Jakucs to conduct an investigation. They knew that neighbors must have seen or heard something.

It turned out that a neighbor had witnessed the whole thing. The witness had let Eccles search his yard and continued to watch from his kitchen window. The kitchen window gave the witness a direct view under his neighbor’s deck. He had seen Eccles go under the deck while Guzman was on the opposite side of the yard. He recalled seeing someone lunge up at Eccles and then Eccles lunging back. Startled, the neighbor jumped back but quickly retuned to the window. He never saw Eccles do anything wrong, but he did see something he thought was unusual. While Eccles was involved in a struggle on the ground, he saw Guzman just standing, as he described it, “paralyzed.” He then saw other officers assist Eccles in securing Chance.

The existence of this witness was turned over to the DA’s office. It was thought that with this witness, the DA’s case would be substantially weakened. For the next several months, Eccles wondered if the information given to the DA’s office would be enough for them to understand that he did not do anything wrong that night.

Five months later, in May 2002, Eccles was informed that a grand jury indictment had been returned against him. He was arraigned in downtown Los Angeles and charged with assault under color of authority and filing a false report. Although he knew Guzman had accused him of wrongdoing, he finally learned what the accusations were. It was learned that Guzman accused Eccles of beating Chance by striking him numerous times with a flashlight. It was also learned that one of the sergeants on the scene believed that he had seen Eccles strike Chance with what he believed was a flashlight, which corroborated Guzman.

Knowing that a downtown Los Angeles jury would not be favorable with these charges, Eccles’ attorney, Bill Seki, made a motion to have the case transferred to the Torrance Courthouse, the area where the alleged crimes had occurred. It was believed that the jury pool would be more favorable and it was where Eccles felt comfortable, having testified in the courthouse on a regular basis. Over the prosecutions objections and to their surprise, the court transferred the case.

On December 9, 2002, jury selection began in the case and testimony began a few days later. The prosecution told the jury that Eccles was a “rogue” cop who had beaten an unresisting suspect. They told the jury that the beating would be proven through the testimony of two officers who had broken the “code of silence” to report misconduct.

Seki, on the other hand, told the jury that the officers couldn’t have seen what they claimed to have seen and that their perceptions may have been shaped by ulterior motives.

During the course of the trial, it was proven that Guzman froze while Eccles struggled with Chance. Guzman testified that when he saw Eccles strike Chance numerous times with a flashlight, he was concerned that there was either an officer safety issue or he was witnessing excessive force. He said that he watched for several seconds before walking over to Eccles, grabbing his arm and asking him what he was doing. This testimony was contradicted by the neighbor, as well as the sergeants, who stated that Guzman never moved. Ultimately, it was shown that Guzman fabricated the story to protect himself from a complaint of neglect of duty.

Chance testified that he was extremely intoxicated that night having consumed more than ten beers in an hour. He told the jury that he did not know why he ran and that he had not been in trouble with law enforcement before that night. On cross-examination, Seki was able to establish that he had run from the police on a prior occasion. On the night that he was arrested, Chance could not remember what happened. However, his memory of events had somehow gotten clearer after a civil lawsuit had been filed against Eccles and the city. Chance also claimed that he had no prior arrests and the prosecution was adamant that both the DA’s office and the Manhattan Beach Police Department could find no information to the contrary. The defense, however, was able to prove that Chance had indeed been arrested before and had been convicted ten months before this incident.

It was also established that the sergeant who claimed to have seen Eccles strike Chance with a flashlight was mistaken. Because of the lighting, he would not have been able to identify a flashlight and what he probably saw were elbow strikes being delivered by Eccles after he was pulled to the ground. In fact, it was shown that the sergeant never told anyone that he had observed misconduct until long after he found out that Guzman had made a complaint, something which was unusual and unreasonable under the circumstances. Additionally, the other sergeant who responded at the scene testified that he observed Eccles in a “struggle” with the suspect, thereby contradicting the first sergeant.

It was further proven by the defense that the injuries sustained by Chance were not consistent with being “beaten” with a flashlight, but were consistent with injuries that would be sustained during his flight. In fact, on the night of his arrest, Chance continuously complained only of pain to his right knee, the area that Eccles admitted to hitting with his flashlight. If he had truly been “beaten” he would have been complaining about injuries all his body.

On December 20, after almost two days of deliberation, and almost a year after the incident, the jury returned verdicts of “not guilty” to all charges. The jury found that Guzman was not a credible witness and the conflict between the sergeants led them to question whether the first sergeant could have seen what he claimed to have seen. The sleepless nights that Eccles had endured and countless hours wondering if his career in law enforcement would be lost were over.

Eric and his family are extremely grateful for the support of the Legal Defense Fund. Without LDF’s support, Eccles doesn’t know how he would have been able to mount a defense. From the beginning, he was impressed that LDF believed that he had a winnable case and were willing to provide the encouragement and support needed to present his defense.

He is also grateful for the efforts of his attorney. “I was 100 percent confident in the abilities of my attorney, Bill Seki.” Additionally, Eccles would like to thank his family and friends for the support they have provided during this past year.

Although, it appeared that the odds were against Eccles, through diligence and perseverance his defense team was able to show that a thorough investigation was not conducted by the prosecution, and there was a rush to file charges. In the process, they dispelled the prosecutions belief that if two officers had come forward, then the incident must have occurred.

By the way, Eccles is not the only family member with law enforcement ties. His father, Ed, is a retired Inglewood police officer and his twin brother, Emery, is a Culver City police officer.

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