Wednesday, November 25, 2015         

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Officers want city to pay their legal bills

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


Seven police officers charged with falsifying overtime reports want the city to pay for their attorneys' fees as they go through the court system.

The Honolulu Police Commission heard from the attorney for one of the seven yesterday.

Commission members made a tentative decision on whether to grant the request from officer Brian Morris, but they declined to make it public, pending a final written decision signed by those supporting the choice. The decision is expected next week.

The requests for legal representation by the six others -- Sgt. Aaron M. Bernal and Sgt. Duke Zoller, and officers Christopher Bugarin, Patrick Bugarin, Leighton Kato and Michael Krekel -- have been postponed until January at the request of their attorneys.

The seven officers work for the Selective Enforcement Unit, part of the department's Traffic Division, which organizes roadblock checkpoints to catch motorists under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The court cases involve allegations that police reports were written to say the two sergeants were at DUI checkpoints when they were not -- a ploy to gain overtime pay.

Bernal and Zoller were charged with theft. All seven were charged with tampering with a government record.

They all have denied wrongdoing and the cases are scheduled to go to court next month.

Prosecutors say the actions of the officers resulted in the dismissal of more than 200 DUI cases.

In requesting city-paid legal representation, the officers' attorneys are citing a state law that requires a police officer be represented and defended by their respective counties whenever that officer "is prosecuted for a crime or sued in a civil action for acts done in the performance of the officer's duty as a police officer."

But the city Corporation Counsel's Office, which represents the city's legal interests, denied the officers' requests. The officers are appealing those denials to the commission through a contested case process.

City attorneys declined to discuss their position yesterday.

But attorneys for the seven say their clients are entitled to having taxpayers cover the cost of their legal fees under state law.

Scott Collins, Morris' attorney, said his client is an upstanding officer who was trying to perform his duties. "He was trying to comply with the orders of a supervisor without being insubordinate."

Morris believed those orders were "improper, but not illegal, at the time," Collins said. "And the standards of conduct of HPD say that if it's an improper order, that you follow it and later raise your complaint."

The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers is backing the requests and also attended yesterday's commission meeting.

SHOPO President Tenari Maafala said his union's standard practice is to ask that its members receive legal representation when accusations of a criminal or civil nature are made against them during the course of their duties.

The officers have been stripped of their police powers pending the results of the investigation and reassigned to restrictive duties in other divisions.

Yesterday's commission deliberations were held privately. Deputy Corporation Counsel Gordon Nelson, who advises the commission, said contested case hearings do not need to be open to the public. The state Office of Information Practices said open meeting laws do not apply to the quasi-judicial contested-case hearing process.

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