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Federal Jury Exonerates Four Fresno Police Officers

Posted on Tuesday, April 01, 2014 at 12:00AM

PAUL GOYETTE
AND HARRY STERN

LDF Panel Attorneys
Goyette & Associates, Inc., and Rains Lucia Stern, PC

Nearly a decade after Fresno police officers arrested a combative domestic violence suspect, a federal jury has finally ended their prolonged odyssey through the criminal justice system by acquitting them of charges of assault under color of authority, obstruction of justice and misprision of a felony. This was the second time a jury had been asked to consider the matter. In February 2013, jurors announced they were hopelessly deadlocked at 10-2 for acquittal. Despite this vote strongly in the defense’s favor, the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division decided to retry the case.
The four officers were represented by PORAC LDF panel attorneys Paul Goyette, E. Marshall Hodgkins and Harry Stern, as well as veteran Fresno criminal defense attorney W. Scott Quinlan.
For police officers everywhere, particularly those weighing the importance of PORAC LDF membership, this case serves as a cautionary tale. Fresno Police Sergeant Michael Manfredi and Officers Paul Van Dalen, Chris Coleman and Sean Plymale were all acting in the “course and scope” of their jobs on October 10, 2005, when Rolando Celedon broke into his ex-girlfriend’s home and assaulted her in front of her young son. Nevertheless, due to the federal government’s ability to wait five years before indicting these officers, the Fresno POA was no longer in a position to fund their defense. In the interim, the POA had wisely chosen to move to PORAC LDF to protect its members. However, the incident took place before this change and the POA had exhausted a vast sum of money defending the officers in various administrative forums. Thus, the officers paid out of their own pockets for a criminal trial that lasted well over a month.
Moreover, when the government announced its decision to retry the case, all four officers had to have their attorneys appointed by the court to represent them. While we believed so strongly in the case that there was no way we would do anything other than see them through the second trial, the difference between a defense funded by PORAC LDF and some other source is worth considering.
Rains Lucia Stern, Goyette & Associates, and the Law Offices of E. Marshall Hodgkins have handled many of the highest-profile police criminal cases in California history. In our collective experience, PORAC LDF has provided every reasonable resource requested in the defense of its members, including jury consultants, a wide range of experts, additional attorneys if needed, and investigators. This is not the case with other sources of defense. Even though we faced the full might of the federal government with its endless resources, we were often working on a shoestring budget, with various expenditures routinely denied. It is the opinion of the authors (one of whom was a former PORAC LDF member and frequent user!) that PORAC LDF is the best benefit plan for the money bar none.
The Incident
A woman named Veronica Rivera called police when her former boyfriend, Rolando Celedon, broke into her apartment and began beating her. Numerous officers responded to the call. The suspect ran from the scene. He was first located by K-9 Officer Sean Plymale. Officer Plymale made contact with the suspect, and it initially appeared that he would be able to take Celedon into custody without incident. Celedon had other ideas, though, and he ran from Officer Plymale. While Plymale gave chase, he released his K-9, Tymo, who quickly caught the suspect.
Celedon then attempted to climb a 6-foot chain-link and barbed-wire fence into a fruit-packing yard. Officer Plymale gave Tymo the bite command and Tymo locked on to the suspect’s leg. Undeterred, Celedon was able to continue to climb over the fence and dragged the K-9 over the fence with him. Officer Plymale then shot the suspect with his Taser while the suspect fought with Tymo on the west side of the fence. The Taser had no effect on Celedon. At this time, Officer Coleman arrived. Officer Plymale climbed over the fence and struck the suspect on the face with his right hand. The blow appeared to have no effect on Celedon, but it did hurt Officer Plymale, who at that moment believed he had broken his right hand. In the meantime, Officer Coleman obtained a less lethal bean-bag shotgun and, while giving the suspect numerous commands to surrender, deployed four rounds that struck Celedon. The suspect still refused to comply with commands to stop. Officer Van Dalen arrived and immediately jumped over the fence. Officer Van Dalen kicked Celedon, which caused the suspect to raise his hands and roll over onto his stomach. Officer Coleman was able to drive his patrol vehicle south of the scene to a gate, allowing him entrance to the yard. Officer Van Dalen was able to handcuff the suspect and take him into custody.
Celedon was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he was released after approximately two hours with no serious injuries. At this point, Officer Coleman and the other officers believed the call had gone well. Rivera had not been harmed and the suspect had been taken into custody with only minor injuries. The biggest worry at this time was that Officer Plymale’s right hand may have been injured (it later turned out to not be broken).
Writing Draft Reports
At this point, each officer was required to write a report regarding his involvement in either the arrest or the use of force. Sergeant Manfredi, the officers’ supervisor, was required to fill out a Use of Force Analysis Form that was used strictly for internal departmental purposes. Over the next two days, the officers began writing draft reports on the Department’s computerized report-writing system. Officer Coleman wrote his initial draft from his patrol vehicle, between calls, on the MVT unit. As he wrote his draft report, he found he had a poor recollection of specific details. He quickly wrote a draft document based on his recollections and different things other officers had told him about the arrest. He saved the draft, hoping to talk to Officer Plymale and other officers on the arrest. He then attended to other calls. The other officers began similarly writing draft reports.
A couple of hours later, Officer Coleman was able to speak with Officer Plymale about the arrest of Celedon. Later in the morning, he was able to also speak to his father, Lieutenant Greg Coleman, who was at that time the K-9 lieutenant. With a refreshed memory, he went back and wrote his second draft report.
An Officer Files a Complaint
Unbeknownst to Officers Coleman, Plymale and Van Dalen and Sergeant Manfredi, an officer who watched part of Celedon’s arrest had filed a complaint with the Department’s Internal Affairs Division stating that, in his opinion, some of the force used to take Celedon into custody was excessive. IA immediately began a very aggressive investigation. Within less than 48 hours, Officers Coleman and Van Dalen were placed on administrative leave. Investigators seized all draft reports out of the report-writing system before any supervisor could review them and make them final.
Political Influences
Almost immediately, strong political forces affected this case. Pictures of Celedon’s injuries were released to the media. Celedon did have a significant bite wound from the K-9, and other scrapes and bruises on his body. Local politicians and certain members of local media grasped onto the arrest of Celedon as an example of police brutality against Hispanic subjects. A lynch-mob mentality developed, which, lawyers for the officers believed, dramatically influenced the Department’s decisions in this case. Despite this environment, the Fresno County district attorney did not pursue criminal charges against any of the officers.
The Federal Government
Almost five years after the arrest of Celedon, the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office convened a federal grand jury and indicted Officers Coleman, Van Dalen and Plymale and Sergeant Manfredi. The case was organized and prosecuted by a special DOJ unit out of Washington, D.C., that investigates police misconduct and corruption. The government indicted Officers Coleman and Van Dalen for civil rights violations related to excessive use of force. It indicted Officers Coleman, Van Dalen and Plymale and Sergeant Manfredi for obstruction of justice related to their reports. Moreover, the government indicted Officer Plymale and Sergeant Manfredi for misprision of a felony for essentially hiding or covering up the commission of felonies by other officers.
The First Trial
The first trial started in January 2013 before Judge Anthony Ishii in the U.S. District Court, Eastern District, Fresno. The trial lasted approximately five weeks. After only four and a half hours of deliberations, the jury announced that it was hopelessly deadlocked and Judge Ishii declared a mistrial. Lawyers for the officers later learned that the jury was split between 10 for acquittal and two for conviction, but they never really deliberated. Former jurors reported that once they received the case, a female juror immediately announced, “All of the defendants are guilty … and I’m not changing my mind.” The jury essentially argued for four and a half hours about their failure to deliberate. Once it became clear they were not going to make any progress, Judge Ishii declared a mistrial.
The Second Trial
Despite a vast majority of the first jury wanting acquittals, the DOJ immediately decided to re-prosecute all of the officers. The second trial started on January 14, 2014, and this time the trial lasted about four and a half weeks. Throughout the trial, it became clear that the officers had every justification to use the force that was applied to Celedon. If anything, a minimal level of force was used. The second trial seemed to focus more on the obstruction of justice charges, where the government alleged that the officers wrote false police reports to interfere with a federal investigation. The lawyers for the officers argued that none of the reports were ever finalized and that the government was relying on draft documents to make its case. In Officer Coleman’s case, he wrote an initial draft that included a number of glaring inaccuracies. A few hours later, he worked on his report further and completed a second draft that was much more accurate but still not a finished product. Officer Coleman never got to finish his report because he was placed on administrative leave and all reports were seized from the computerized report-writing system. Lawyers for the officers argued that it was simply unfair, if not ridiculous, to prosecute the officers for the content of draft documents that had never been finalized or submitted.
Fortunately, the jury agreed. After almost two days of deliberations, the jury, which included African American and Hispanic American members, found all officers not guilty on seven of the eight counts. The jury was unable to reach a decision on a single obstruction of justice count against Officer Coleman, with 11 voting for not guilty and one for guilty. The government will not retry that single count.
Conclusion
Chris Coleman, Paul Van Dalen, Sean Plymale and Mike Manfredi were all good, hardworking cops doing their best to protect victims of crime and make Fresno safe for the people who live there, when they were swept up in an ordeal that played out for nearly a decade. During the course of this ordeal, each carried himself with dignity and a level head. We can say that we have never worked with a more mentally tough and cohesive group of men. As for the lawyers, we learned that teamwork and professionalism carries the day. The jury once again affirmed our faith in common sense and in the system. For those who sometimes question the necessity of paying those PORAC LDF dues — ask Chris Coleman, Paul Van Dalen, Sean Plymale or Mike Manfredi!

About the Authors
Harry S. Stern is the managing principal of Rains Lucia Stern, PC. His practice is focused on civil litigation and criminal defense. Prior to becoming an attorney, Harry was a police officer with the City of Berkeley and was a member of the Berkeley Police Association’s Board of Directors.
Paul Goyette is an entrepreneur, trial lawyer, business builder and visionary. Paul founded and is the chief executive officer of the law firm of Goyette & Associates, Inc. For 24 years, Paul has represented all types of public-sector employees and employee organizations. 
 

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