The question of whether Santa Barbara police destroyed evidence as a cover-up was at the heart of a court hearing Friday in the case of a Santa Barbara man charged with driving under the influence. Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Brian Hill ultimately determined that the evidence presented did not constitute bad faith.
Peter Lance, 63, is facing a misdemeanor DUI charge after being arrested by Santa Barbara police in the early morning hours of Jan. 1.
A freelance writer, Lance subsequently authored a lengthy series of articles for the Santa Barbara News-Press about his arrest and his investigation into the credibility of arresting officer Kasi Beutel.
Among Lance’s allegations are claims that his signature and those of other defendants were forged on police report documents, relinquishing their right to have blood samples taken that could be retested later.
Beutel and the Santa Barbara Police Department have denied the allegations.
Hill met with the case’s two attorneys in his chambers before beginning the public hearing Friday morning. At the start, Hill reminded both sides to make comments to the court and not to each other, and he instructed Lance not to speak at all unless through his attorney, Darryl Genis.
Most of Friday’s hearing focused on whether law enforcement had knowingly destroyed Lance’s original waiver. Three witnesses from the SBPD records department were called to the stand, each saying they were unsure when the waiver had been destroyed.
Whether the destruction of Lance’s form violates constitutional or statutory law was central to the proceedings.
“We want to know whether that was done to preclude Mr. Lance from exculpatory evidence,” Hill said. “We’re looking for some evidence of bad faith that can be attributed to the police in determining whether dismissal is the appropriate sanction.”
First to take the stand was police Lt. David Whitham, who oversees communications and records for SBPD. He explained how the department disposes of its documents.
Any reports that are handwritten are scanned electronically and within 10 days, he said. The accuracy of that scan is then verified by a records specialist.
After that, the department retains records between 90 days and six months, depending on workload, he said, and then the documents are shredded by an outside vendor. There’s no law stating how long to keep the original documents, and Whitham said the 90-day period was a policy decision made by the department.
A new computer system was implemented in 2008, and a backlog occurred, according to Whitham. Budget cuts added to the logjam, he said, and the reports were verified by specialists as they could get to them. But documents from 2011, including Lance’s, had been destroyed before filings dating from 2009 and 2010, prompting questions from the defense. Whitham was unsure about why 2011 records had been shredded first.
The next witness, SBPD records specialist Cindy Cornett, had an answer, saying she made the decision to work through the most recent files first, working backward through the paperwork. Cornett said she verified Lance’s document for accuracy on Jan 11, 2011, adding that Lance’s document could have been shredded in April or possibly May, but she didn’t know for sure.
Genis asked Cornett if anyone from the District Attorney’s Office had contacted her.
“I have never spoken to anybody from the DA’s Office about Mr. Lance’s report,” she replied.
SBPD records supervisor Susan Segura said she received a request for the waiver July 6, just like Cornett and Whitham.
When she checked the records that day, she found the electronic file, but was unable to locate the paper document. She responded to the District Attorney’s Office the next day and advised them that the original report was maintained electronically and the print copy was no longer a part of SBPD records.
Through the testimony of the three witnesses, Genis maintained that the District Attorney’s Office has known for some time that the policy was to scan and destroy the documents. He added that Deputy District Attorney Sanford Horowitz knew about the policy and had purposefully waited to request that document so it would be destroyed.
After asking several times for Genis to keep his voice down, Hill said he wasn’t convinced that law enforcement actions constituted bad faith.
Although he had ordered the original, Hill said that no trial date had been set at the time so there was no urgency when he asked Horowitz for the waiver.
But Genis said Horowitz delayed requesting the original on purpose.
“He’s running the clock out,” he asserted.
“It’s a pretty serious allegation,” responded Hill, who asked Horowitz if he was aware of the policy.
Horowitz, who has been practicing law in Santa Barbara County for less than a year, said he wasn’t aware of SBPD’s policy on destroying documents until August.
Hill reminded Genis, a longtime local DUI attorney, that Genis himself had admitted he wasn’t aware of the policy, and that someone at the District Attorney’s Office might not know either.
The second issue that arose Friday was whether Beutel was using a preprinted form when Lance was pulled over by police in January. Jim Blanco, a handwriting expert brought in by Genis, said his analysis determined that Beutel was using preprinted forms, but the prosecution maintains she stopped using the forms in 2010.
The prosecution brought Sandra Homewood, a forensic document examiner from San Marcos, to the stand. Unlike Blanco, Homewood said it wasn’t possible to distinguish between toner and ink on a photocopy, which would be a tell-tale sign that Beutel was filling out the forms ahead of time.
Homewood testified she had reviewed 40 DUI reports taken by Beutel, both before and after Lance’s incident. She said she found no evidence to support the allegation that Lance’s DUI report was prepared from a master copy, which she said supports Beutel’s claims that she stopped filling out forms that way earlier.
Before Genis could finish his cross-examination of Homewood, Hill adjourned the hearing for the day.
Lance’s case will be back in court at 8:30 a.m. Monday, and Beutel is expected to take the stand.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.