ORANGE COUNTY’S ‘STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE’
By Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, The Appeal
Handcuffed and lying on the ground, Mohamed Sayem asked Orange County officers Michael Devitt and Eric Ota if they were going to shoot him.
“No,” Devitt said.
“Like to,” Ota replied.
Moments earlier, at about 6 a.m. on Aug. 19, 2018, Devitt had dragged Sayem from his jeep, and punched him several times in the face and stomach. The incident was captured on Devitt’s dashboard camera.
The officers had woken Sayem, who appeared intoxicated and had fallen asleep. They asked him for identification. After trading insults, Sayem placed his foot outside the jeep twice, and that’s when Devitt grabbed him and punched him.
After the altercation, Sgt. Christopher Hibbs, assigned to investigate Devitt’s use of force, arrived on the scene. Devitt reported to Hibbs that Sayem “‘went into this ‘verbal berate’” using a racial slur. He said that Sayem “comes up on me” and “tried to bear hug me.” He then told Hibbs that Sayem had stepped outside the car, and was “basically standing over me.” He had begun painting the picture that he was acting in self defense.
There is no depiction of a bear hug on the video or of Sayem using racist language. Nor does the dashcam video show Sayem stepping out of the car; in it Sayem is holding on to the steering wheel when Devitt dragged him out of the car.
Sayem was taken to the county jail and charged with felony resisting and deterring an executive officer and public intoxication, which together carry a jail sentence of up to three years and six months.
On June 4, Scott Sanders, Sayem’s public defender, filed a motion to compel the Orange County district attorney’s office to provide critical pieces of as yet undisclosed evidence, and to allow him to take testimony from the officers. Sanders believes that this additional information could cast further doubt on the credibility of the officers’ accounts, and help get the charges against Sayem dropped. A ruling on his motion is pending.
The Orange County district attorney’s office did not provide comment. The Orange County sheriff’s department confirmed that Ota and Devitt are on active duty with the department and referred The Appeal to a videotaped statement that was released in October. “The suspect did not comply with the deputy’s directives. An appropriate use of force was utilized at that time,” Sandra Hutchens, who was then the sheriff, said in the video. “My deputy is not on trial. The suspect is on trial for assaulting a peace officer.”
Sayem’s ongoing legal battle is up against a police department that, according to advocates, works hand-in-hand with the district attorney’s office to routinely violate the rights of community members with almost complete impunity. And despite the recent election of District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who has promised reforms, advocates say that abuse and corruption persist.
“What happened to Sayem absolutely reflects the larger systemic issues with the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office,” said Brendan Hamme, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “The criminal justice system in Orange County is in crisis.”
‘A field of facts’
Sanders said the first offense against Sayem was the assault, and the second was the cover-up—a pattern out of the Orange County playbook. In addition to Devitt’s reports, which contradicted video and audio recordings, further evidence of the incident has been suppressed, according to Sanders’s motion.
Deputy Brant Lewis and Deputy Blake Blaney arrived at the scene shortly after Hibbs, Devitt’s dashcam video shows. Lewis appeared to turn off Hibbs’s audio recording device at 6:28 a.m. while the video continues to roll for 11 more minutes. At 6:39, Devitt entered a written account of the incident, which differed significantly from his initial oral statement and the available dashcam videos, according to Sanders’s motion.
It is not known what the officers discussed during that period. Sanders thinks that additional dashcam recordings will provide crucial audio evidence and is requesting that the sheriff’s department turn it over.