By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
SACRAMENTO – A defendant here, accused of taking law enforcement on a merry chase before being arrested, will be held for trial in Sacramento County Superior Court—despite some questions about whether he was the person driving.
A trial date was set for Forrest Conner in a 2015 police chase in Sacramento County. Superior Court Judge Delbert Oros determined that sufficient evidence was presented to proceed to trial for Conner, who maintained his innocence Tuesday morning during a preliminary hearing held over Zoom.
Conner, who is accused of fleeing a police enforcement stop, was charged with one count of felony reckless evasion of a peace officer.
Conner’s attorney, Shelby Alberts, argued that there wasn’t sufficient evidence that it was Conner who drove the fleeing car. Unpersuaded, Judge Oros was convinced by the testimony of Sgt. Dennis Peyton, the only witness to testify during the hearing, that the standard for trial had been met.
Sgt. Peyton, who works for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s department, testified that on June 3, 2015, he and his partner signaled a grey Dodge Avenger to pull over after seeing the driver texting at the wheel. The driver pulled into a CVS parking lot, stuck his head out of the driver’s side window, then fled.
After running a red light, the driver escaped, according to Peyton.
Shortly thereafter, on the same day, Peyton got word from the California Highway Patrol of a stolen rental car belonging to a woman in Sacramento. Upon searching existing records, Peyton found a report detailing a 2012 incident involving the woman and Conner.
Peyton and his team located the woman and learned she had been in Hall Park with her boyfriend when her car, keys still in the ignition, was stolen. When she was shown a photo of Conner, she said she didn’t recognize him. The deputies reminded her of the penalties for perjury and asked her she wanted to stick with her story; she said yes.
They ran a search of an address the woman had provided in Atlanta and learned that it was the same address they had listed for Conner.
The woman’s brother, whom the officers spoke to next, identified Conner as the woman’s boyfriend. At this point, Peyton took the woman into custody.
Alberts focused her cross-examination around Sgt. Peyton’s ability to recall the face of the driver.
Although he correctly identified Conner over the video-chat screen during the hearing, Alberts argued that this wasn’t enough to prove that it was Conner who had driven the fleeing car during the 2015 chase.
“I do think there will be serious issues in trial proving that this was my client. The officer who testified today… admitted that he did not have a good view of his face while they were at the light and that the only time he got a look at his face was between one and three seconds in that CVS parking lot,” said defense counsel Alberts.
She elicited from Sgt. Peyton that there was no video evidence of any part of the investigation. Neither Peyton nor his partner—who were outfitted in semi-plain-clothed uniforms—or those who aided them recorded any part of their search on body or car cameras.
She also noted that Peyton saw the driver’s face just once for less than three seconds, that he couldn’t recall whether or not the driver was wearing a hat, and that five years and over 600 investigations later, his ability to accurately identify the driver was shaky at best.
“There is still no direct evidence that he [Conner] was ever in possession of that vehicle. The officer was happy to identify my client here in court, but I do think there are some credibility issues and it was a bit disingenuous…I think that it’s clear that there will be problems proving this beyond a reasonable doubt,” Alberts said.
Judge Oros disagreed with Alberts and found that there was sufficient evidence of a correct identification to meet the evidentiary standard for the preliminary hearing.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Conner entered a plea of not guilty, maintaining that he was not involved in the 2015 incident. His trial will begin on August 20, 2020.
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