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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mistrial declared in trial of deputy who used Taser

April 14, 2009

FULLERTON – A deadlocked jury forced a judge Monday to declare a mistrial in the case of an Orange County sheriff's deputy accused of abusing his authority by using a Taser on a handcuffed suspect.

Christopher Hibbs, 45, of Corona, was indicted by a grand jury on one felony count each of felony assault or battery by a public officer and assault with a Taser.

The jury, which began deliberations late last Thursday, deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal, defense attorney Robert Gazley said.

Gazley, who insisted during the trial that his client did not break the law, said he will argue on Friday that the charges – which could bring up to three years in prison – should be dismissed. Prosecutors are expected to respond then as to whether they want to retry the case, Gazley said.

Deputy District Attorney Israel Claustro could not be reached for immediate comment.

Hibbs was riding in the passenger seat of a patrol car with a trainee about 2 a.m. Sept. 13, 2007, when the deputies noticed a man wearing a trench coat and carrying an open beer bottle walking east on Ball Road toward Brookhurst Street, in an unincorporated island surrounded by Anaheim.

When Hibbs asked 31-year-old Ignacio Gomez Lares if he could search him for weapons, the Santa Ana resident refused and briefly struggled with Hibbs before knocking him to the ground, according to Farrah Emami of the Orange County District Attorney's Office. Lares left his trench coat behind as he ran away, she said.

Hibbs and the trainee, joined by an off-duty Los Angeles police officer who saw the struggle, chased Lares, who was caught about 250 feet from the patrol car, Emami said.

Hibbs fired the stun gun at Lares, who he said was resisting, and Lares was handcuffed with his hands behind his back and walked by all three officers back to the patrol car and placed inside, Emami said.

The LAPD officer left, and while searching the trench coat, Hibbs and the trainee found a loaded firearm inside, Emami said.

When Hibbs asked Lares for his name and date of birth, Lares provided his correct birthdate, but gave his name as “Ignacio Gomez,” which resulted in no computer matches, she said.

After several demands for his real name, Hibbs then took the Taser and asked the suspect one last time, Emami said. When he repeated the same name again, Hibbs zapped him again, Emami said.

Prosecutors said Hibbs was within his legal training when he used the Taser on Lares the first time, because he was not handcuffed and was resisting arrest.

But it was not legal for Hibbs to use the Taser on Lares after he was handcuffed in the patrol car, according to the prosecution.

But Gazley argued to the jury that Lares put his foot in the door jam as if trying to get out of the patrol car, and/or attack Hibbs, which allowed the deputy to use “controlled force.”

“He had already tried to escape, he was high on methamphetamine and he was acting erratically,” Gazley said. “(Hibbs) is not required to wait and see if (Lares) was trying to get out.”

One juror was replaced during deliberations because he refused to take part in the discussions, Gazley said. That juror, who wanted a guilty verdict, was replaced with a woman who also was in favor of conviction, but who continued to deliberate even though she was the holdout, he said.

Gazley said he talked to jurors after the mistrial, but the holdout did not explain her stance.

“The sense I got from the jurors is that there simply was not enough evidence, or even close to it” to convict, Gazley said.

The charges marked the first time an Orange County sheriff's deputy had been accused of illegal use of a Taser since the department started using them about four years ago, a department spokesman said.

Gazley said earlier that his client had never been disciplined during his 14 years on the job and had received several awards.

Word that Hibbs may have unnecessarily used a Taser on a suspect came to the attention of another sheriff's sergeant when Hibbs requested a transfer to another city, Emami said.

After a Sheriff's Department investigation, the case was turned over to the District Attorney's Office for a follow-up probe, which led to the case going to the grand jury.

Hibbs, who has remained free on his own recognizance since being indicted last fall, is on administrative leave from the department.

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