Federal prosecutors aren’t pursuing a civil rights case against three Fullerton police officers involved in a deadly struggle 5 1/2 years ago with a schizophrenic transient, whose father Tuesday was trying to come to grips with the decision.
Ron Thomas blamed state laws preventing the use of termination letters against the officers in any legal proceeding as the main reason prosecutors did not pursue the case.
“Not even the Department of Justice can use the termination letters in a court of law,” he said. “If those letters had been read by jurors in a criminal case, these guys would be in prison.”
Thomas said he was informed of the decision last week.
“It’s taken five and a half years to come out with a letter that basically quotes the Fourth Amendment on unreasonable search and seizure,” Thomas said, noting that his son Kelly agreed to let the officers search his backpack, which ultimately triggered the deadly fracas at the Fullerton Transportation Center on July 5, 2011.
The 37-year-old transient was taken off life support five days later.
“Five and a half years to come out with that is just ridiculous,” his father said.
Interim Fullerton Police Chief David Hinig issued a terse statement saying that his department was notified Monday of the decision by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division regarding the decision.
“We respect their decision and appreciate the due consideration they have given the case,” he said, declining further comment and referring questions to federal prosecutors.
The Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., issued a statement saying the decision was made after “a thorough investigation.”
“In order to prove a violation of the applicable civil rights laws, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an official `willfully’ deprived an individual of a constitutional right, meaning that the official acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something illegal,” the statement said. “Neither accident, mistake, fear, negligence, nor bad judgment is sufficient to establish a willful federal criminal civil rights violation. Based on the results of the investigation, the federal government could not meet its burden of proving that the officers acted willfully to deprive Thomas of a constitutional right.”
Former Officer Manuel Ramos and former Cpl. Jay Cicinelli were acquitted in a criminal trial, and state prosecutors dropped a case against former Officer Joe Wolfe.
Ramos lost an appeal to get his job back on Dec. 28 before an arbitration hearing officer, according to his attorney, Paul DePasquale. The deadline to appeal that ruling to the City Council is the end of this week, and DePasquale said he was awaiting word from Ramos on whether he wants to go that route. He declined further comment.
Attorney John Barnett, who represented Ramos in the state criminal trial, said, “We’re very pleased this case has come to a resolution. It’s appropriate they took no action. He’s pleased, and I’m pleased the litigation has finally closed.”
Cicinelli won his appeal before an arbitration hearing officer at the end of November, said his attorney, Michael Schwartz.
“The city is appealing that to the City Council,” Schwartz said. “We’re waiting to go before the City Council… The hearing officer found no evidence of excessive force on behalf of my client and he should not have been terminated.”
Schwartz said the announcement from federal prosecutors represented another level of vindication for his client.
“It kind of shows (federal prosecutors) took a real, thorough look at this and it (a civil rights violation) wasn’t there,” Schwartz said. “He’s relieved. It’s one more sign from an outside body there was never anything criminal in my client’s actions and, to be blunt, he didn’t do anything wrong.”
In November 2015, Thomas reached a $4.9 million settlement with the city of Fullerton in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Thomas said he was given earlier indications from former U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr., when he represented the Central District of California, that federal prosecutors would pursue a civil rights action against the officers. But Birotte was subsequently appointed a federal judge and replaced by U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker.
“She took over and nobody even cares anymore,” Thomas said. “I was calling the FBI agents over the past couple of years and asking what’s going on and they’d say the case is in D.C.”
Thomas added that the decision is “very disappointing all the way around… It hurts. It really hurts.”
Thomas complained that city officials won’t tell him what’s happening with the officers’ attempts to get their jobs back. He said he would continue to oppose those efforts to put the officers back on the city’s payroll.
–City News Service