Remember those awful Fullerton cops who beat up and killed Kelly Thomas, a homeless man? One of the cops who was at that incident but not charged in it – moved toward a man, Veth Mam, who was filming an altercation, in July of 2011, knocking a cellphone camera out of his hands.
A federal jury is expected to hear closing arguments Monday in the lawuit filed by Mam, who was arrested, prosecuted and acquitted of misdemeanor charges, including battering and assaulting a police officer, according to the O.C. Register. Click here to read about what happened in that incident, as reported by a bail bondsman’s blog.
Mam is suing three Fullerton officers in the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, for constitutional rights violations and malicious prosecution.
The OC Weekly’s excellent investigative reporter, R. Scott Moxley, took a look at this incident and broke it down, in all its gory details, as follows in these excerpts from his article:
At about 2 a.m. one weekend night, officer Jonathan Miller stopped Sokha Leng outside of a bar. Miller threw Leng, who’d been in a verbal dispute with another man, down to the street and pounced on him for not obeying his commands. Veth Mam, one of Leng’s Cambodian friends, pulled out his iPhone and began recording what he considered to be excessive force.
(Despite continual attempts by police to scare citizens into not filming their acts, they have no right to make such a demand, a position firmly backed by the U.S. Department of Justice.)
The video shows Miller in control of Leng, a crowd—including Mam—yelling at officers to calm down and about eight other cops (including Frank Nguyen, Ricardo Reynoso, Kenton Hampton and Daniel Solorio) forming a protective human shield while telling observers to “back up.”
To this point, all is relatively fine. Citizens were voicing their constitutionally protected freedom to express displeasure at questionable police violence. In the midst of a potential crisis, police—though fully armed and waiving Taser guns—demanded fairly that observers give them additional room to perform their duties.
But then Hampton—one of the six cops who’d later play a minor role in the Thomas beating—decided to approach the onlookers, singled out Mam, knocked the recording phone out of his hand, kicked him down to the street and handcuffed him. One of Mam’s friend’s, Denserey Tim, picked up the phone and continued recording.
Based on that sequence of events, Hampton arrested Mam, threw him in the Fullerton jail, and then had him transferred to county lockup for several days until deputies allowed him to post bail just before he was set to go to work on Monday morning. As the cops at the scene that night officially recorded their observations, they swore under oath and in writing that they positively saw Mam commit three crimes that justified his arrest: obstructing a police officer, assaulting a police officer and “lynching” a police officer.
Officer Nguyen claimed he observed Mam “jump on Officer Miller’s back” and “wrap his hands around Miller’s neck and tried to choke him.” Who knows what could have happened if Nguyen hadn’t been there to be the hero? He documented his own bravery by asserting he was the one who saved his colleague from Mam.
Nguyen wrote his police report—one that oddly failed to mention even a hint of Hampton’s assault or handcuffing of Mam—without knowing that Mam’s video would later surface and annihilate his credibility. For his part, Hampton didn’t file any report, a move that violated procedures. Officers who’ve engaged in physical contact with a citizen are required to document the incident.
Despite the fictional and missing reports, the case proceeded to trial, where prosecutor Rebecca Reed finally saw the video and showed it to Nguyen. The officer still refused to concede the obvious. Instead, he concocted an amended but still preposterous tale of events that no other witness saw: Mam choked Miller before the iPhone recording and then had been allowed to walk unimpeded back into the crowd without consequence.
(Back in reality: Try choking a cop and see how long it takes to face attempted murder charges.)
According to Garo Mardirossian and Thomas E. Beck, Mam’s civil lawyers, Hampton targeted their client because he was angry that police actions were being recorded. As evidence, they noted that, while nobody in the crowd acted physically threatening to the cops, Hampton bypassed several individuals who were closer to Miller (but weren’t recording the incident) to get to Mam.
A July 2011 jury handed the Fullerton PD and Reed a defeat; the following month Mam filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the officers, acting essentially as a gang of dishonest thugs with badges, had violated his constitutional rights. In a deposition, Nguyen changed his story once again. The newest version is that he must have seen someone choke Miller, but it wasn’t Mam.
Lawyers for the police have strenuously attempted to crush the lawsuit before it reaches a jury. To their delight, U.S. District Court Judge Josephine Staton Tucker has weakened Mam’s claims in several respects by deciding, for example, to dismiss a conspiracy count against the cops. But Tucker also noted Nguyen’s numerous, brazen flip-flops, glaring inconsistencies in each of the officers’ versions of events and declared that Nguyen and Miller lied on the witness stand at Mam’s criminal trial.
“A trier-of-fact could determine that, when confronted with the physical impossibility of Mam being both [her emphasis] the person taking the video and the person in the video, Nguyen and Miller deliberately testified falsely at Mam’s criminal trial and misled [prosecutor] Reed to sustain the prosecution,” the judge ruled in granting the plaintiff’s complaint of malicious prosecution. “Their fabrication caused the action to be maintained when it otherwise would have been dismissed.”
So have things changed in Fullerton? Are the cops still assaulting the residents?