By Josué Monroy
SACRAMENTO – A Sacramento County Superior Court judge admonished the prosecution for presenting a flawed case, based on “shoddy” police work and questionable identification last week in a preliminary hearing in Dept. 10.
Judge Ernest W. Sawtelle remained unconvinced as Deputy District Attorney Sylvia La Rosa sought to charge the defendant, Russell Hodges, with felony vandalism, resisting arrest, and illegal possession of drug paraphernalia stemming from two incidents on the same day back in May.
He dismissed the felony case after what he called were “rookie mistakes” by police.
La Rosa called on the four Sacramento Police Dept. officers who responded to the two separate incidents to testify in a confusing case involving contradicting witness statements, and subpar police procedures.
DDA La Rosa first called officer Sydney Thompson as a witness, who testified that on May 17, she and other officers from Sacramento PD responded to a call involving a person with a bat vandalizing vehicle in the parking lot of 530 Bercut Drive in Sacramento County.
Upon arriving, Thompson contacted the man who had made the call to police, as well as the alleged victim and another female witness at the scene. The suspect had fled through the parking lot just before officers arrived at the scene, according to the witnesses.
The person who called police alleged he was 40-50 feet away from the parking lot when he heard yelling, and went to investigate. Initially saying it was a male because of the deep voice, he later was not sure, as the individual was wearing a white hooded sweatshirt with the hood up over their head, as they rambled incoherently. Thompson stated that the witness could not identify any other specific clothing item.
The suspect had apparently thrown rocks at only a specific white SUV parked at the scene, which belonged to the alleged victim, according to witness statements. No bat was found at the scene, according to Thompson.
During cross-examination, Tatiana Cottam, the assistant public defender representing Hodges, asked officer Thompson about a fourth witness at the scene that gave a contradicting description of the suspect. The witness, a female, had approached Thompson as she was taking the other witness statements, and described the suspect as being female, according to Cottam. She questioned the officer as to why she did not take a statement, as she had done with the other individuals, and follow up on her allegations.
DDA La Rosa objected to the line of questioning as having a lack of foundation, arguing that whatever this fourth person said is irrelevant, as she did not make recorded statement
“We don’t know who this person is, there’s no name,” said La Rosa.
“We don’t have to know a name. it’s the officer’s fault that there is no name. She took a statement but, didn’t write it down on paper,” responded Judge Sawtelle, overruling her.
Referring to the police report, Cottam told the court that the unknown female witness indicated to officers that the person committing vandalism was female, and that the same female had been at the scene prior to that, in an incident where she had stripped naked while acting erratically.
When pressed by Cottam if she recalled the witness’s allegations, officer Thompson stated she could not.
“What is you reason for not documenting this other unknown female?” asked Judge Sawtelle.
Thompson claimed she was set on the description given by the other witnesses.
“When I had spoken with the witness [advising] me that he had seen this person, and believed it to be a male wearing a white sweatshirt, my mind was set on a male wearing a white sweatshirt,” she explained.
“Even though you have a second witness who said it was a female. Why would you not document that?”, continued Judge Sawtelle.
” I don’t know, sir,” replied Thompson.
Officer Thompson stated that because the witness was not present in the parking lot when police arrived, that she assumed they did not witness the vandalism.
The prosecution’s next witness, officer Daisy Castro, was the second responding officer to the morning incident. She detailed the statement made by the initial female witness, when asked by DDA La Rosa.
Officer Castro stated that the witness drove into the parking lot and saw a white female standing next to a white SUV making threatening hand gestures. The witness then heard what she described as “bat noises“ while parking, at which point she drove away after the suspect made threatening gestures in her direction. When Castro asked if she could positively identify the individual if seen again, she stated she could.
When asked by the defense about the alleged fourth witness at the scene, Castro acknowledged that there was an additional unidentified female witness. She also said that neither she nor Officer Thompson took an official statement from said witness, but corroborated the information previously presented about her description of the suspect.
Next, the prosecution called on the two responding officers to the afternoon incident at the same location of the previous one. The initial female witness from that incident was the one who called, stating that the perpetrator had returned and was wielding a weapon.
Officer Anthony Gamble was the first to contact the defendant, and officer Terrence Gordon arrived shortly after he was already detained.
Gamble testified that he contacted Hodges several buildings away from at about 4 p.m., and that he was holding a metal pipe. Gamble subsequently made the defendant drop the pipe, and detained him. Upon searching him, the officer found what he alleged was a glass pipe typically used to smoke methamphetamine.
Officer Gordon testified he arrived a few minutes after, noting the defendant was already detained in the back of a police car, with the witness also at the scene. It is unclear how the witness arrived at the location. At that point, the witness was allowed to do a field show-up, or line up, in order to positively identify the detainee.
Gordon stated that the defendant was then taken out of the car, and made to stand for the identification by the witness. When asked as to the approximate distance between the witness and defendant, the officer estimated the distance to be around 200 feet.
After witness testimony, Judge Sawtelle was not convinced of the prosecution’s case.
Citing insufficient evidence, and a confusing presentation of evidence in which two separate witnesses identified the suspect as a female, he did not feel like the defendant should answer to the felony vandalism charge.
The judge also commented on what he described as “rookie mistakes” by the officers – all have been on the force for less than five years – including two who failed to even obtain the fourth witness’s basic contact information.
“This is very sloppy police work. Period. I don’t how else we can describe this,” Judge Sawtelle said.
“This is not put together properly; I’m frankly surprised your (DA) office filed it. Maybe you have some more evidence, but there is no connection here,” he continued, addressing DDA La Rosa.
In reference to the witness identification, he found that to be unacceptable.
“You have the woman who previously said it was a woman who did the vandalism, then you have the person identify the suspect from 200 feet way. 200 feet? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a field show-up at 200 feet. That’s two-thirds of the length of a football field. That’s unfathomable to me that you would do a field show-up at 200 feet. I can see 40-50 feet, the length of my courtroom,” scolded Judge Sawtelle.
While the court will not hold Hodges for the felony vandalism charge, it will refer him to misdemeanor court for illicit possession of drug paraphernalia and resisting arrest. He is due back in court Aug. 5 at 2:05 p.m. in Dept 2, and will remain in custody until then.
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9