A mistrial was declared Thursday when jurors could not reach verdicts in the case against a former Signal Hill Police Department officer accused of an off-duty road rage attack on another motorist afflicted with multiple sclerosis.
After about a day and a half of deliberations, jurors deadlocked 8-4 in favor of acquitting Jacob Emory Swigger of felony counts of assault and battery by an officer and assault with a firearm.
Swigger’s attorney said he would file a motion to dismiss the charges, predicting no jury would be able to reach a verdict.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Jess Rodriguez declined comment.
Andrew Escobar, who voted for acquittal, said the witness accounts varied too much to determine what actually happened.
Escobar thought that jurors who voted to convict “felt sorry” for the alleged victim, Douglas Cruse. He noted one juror cried when she saw Cruse in court.
Everyone on the panel agreed the officer could have handled the incident better, but there was a question whether his actions constituted excessive force, Escobar said.
And while many jurors felt it “wasn’t smart” for Swigger to keep pursuing the other motorist, Escobar said, others felt the more important question was whether he was “legally given the authority to do so.”
Jurors who voted to convict the defendant argued that Swigger should have just taken down the other driver’s license plate number and called police to let them handle it, Escobar said.
Swigger, 40, of Lake Forest, is no longer on the police force.
The trouble between the two motorists began near the transition between the Santa Ana (5) and San Diego (405) Freeways at Bake Parkway in Irvine on Nov. 20, 2014, according to Rodriguez.
Swigger was not in uniform — he was clad in a gray sweatshirt and jeans — and was driving his own personal car, a Dodge Charger, according to the prosecutor, who told jurors that Cruse had “no way of knowing Mr. Swigger is a police officer.”
At one point, while trying to get to the far left lane, Cruse merged over and then noticed he was “really close to the car behind him,” Rodriguez said. Cruse “thought he had enough room, but after the lane change,” he realized he “probably cut him off,” Rodriguez said.
The driver of the Charger then began “driving more aggressively, honking at him, yelling at him,” Rodriguez told the jury.
The two made it onto the 5 Freeway, where traffic slowed to “stop-and- go” as it usually does at the Laguna (133) Freeway, Rodriguez said. That gave Swigger enough room to maneuver in front of Cruse and force him to stop “in the middle of the freeway,” the prosecutor said.
A gun-wielding Swigger got out of this car and walked over to Cruse, “yelling at him, cutting at him,” then pulled Cruse out of his vehicle and “slams him repeatedly” against it, Rodriguez alleged.
Swigger then put his service revolver to Cruse’s head and dragged him to the back of the victim’s Mazda and, as the victim fell to the ground, put his foot on him, Rodriguez alleged.
“Mr. Cruse wouldn’t have been able to get up anyway because of his multiple sclerosis,” Rodriguez said.
The victim’s MS worsened after the encounter and he lost the use of his left hand, which is his dominant hand, as well as his job as an architect, Rodriguez said.
Witnesses told police the defendant `looked like he was in a fit of range, out of control as he arrested Cruse, “who was being tossed around like a limp doll,” Rodriguez said.
Defense attorney John Barnett said his client was driving to work to testify in traffic court that morning. Barnett said the officer, who had been a cop for seven years, was cut off at least twice and alleged that Cruse purposely pumped his brakes in front of the defendant.
“So his antennas are up,” Barnett said. “He thinks this guy is a danger. He tried to call 911, but he couldn’t get to his phone.”
Swigger pulled up alongside Cruse and announced he was a police officer while holding up his badge, but Cruse did not pull over, Barnett said. He said Swigger determined the other driver was “potentially dangerous.”
When traffic slowed, Swigger blocked his way and ordered Cruse out of the car, but he refused, Barnett said.
“What’s he supposed to do?” Barnett asked. “He doesn’t know Mr. Cruse has MS.”
Cruse told varying stories to investigators, acknowledging that he may have cut off Swigger in traffic, Barnett said. Cruse told investigators he had trouble moving his neck and working the brakes while driving because of his malady, Barnett said.
Swigger saw “a clear and present danger and reacted” and was not guilty of excessive force, Barnett said.
— City News Service