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No legal aid for officer accused in HPD scandal

Brian Morris failed to prove that he acted to correct falsified reports, a panel says

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


A police officer charged with falsifying records has been denied his request for legal counsel by the Honolulu Police Commission.

Veteran officer Brian J. Morris is among seven officers implicated in a scandal involving allegations that police reports were written to say that two sergeants were at DUI checkpoints when they were not in a ploy to gain overtime pay.

The commission, in a 4-1 decision released last week, rejected Morris' request.

The six other officers also have requested legal representation, and their cases are scheduled to be heard by the commission next month.

The seven contend they are entitled to a city-paid attorney, 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."

The city Office of the Corporation Counsel, the city's legal arm, rejected their requests for counsel initially and the officers appealed to the commission through a contested case process.

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

Morris, a 10-year HPD veteran, allegedly signed off on a report that Sgt. Aaron M. Bernal was present at a roadblock when Bernal was actually in Las Vegas. He is also accused of signing a report that said he transported someone who had been arrested when he had not. He claims he filed that second report falsely on the orders of Bernal and Sgt. Duke Zoller.

Morris told commission members at a meeting Dec. 15 that he questioned both actions but was ignored.

But in its report, the commission said Morris failed to prove that he took actions to correct the reports or bring them to the attention of authorities.

Commission members concluded that Morris failed to prove "that the actions for which he has been criminally charged were done in the performance of his duties as a police officer."

Commission Vice Chairman Craig Watase said the decision was a difficult one for the four who voted to deny Morris legal counsel.

"This officer was put in a very tough position," Watase said. "He tried to walk the line between what his supervisor was asking him, and making a decision about what was right or wrong. And at the end of the day, we just felt like this was an experienced-enough officer that he should have known it was the wrong decision."

The commission members agreed with city attorneys that "it's not a police officer's job to falsify a document even if he just signed off (on) it," he said.

Watase was joined by commission members Helen Hamada, Corlis Chang and Max Sword in denying Morris' request. Commissioner Benjamin Saguibo supported Morris' request.

Commission Chairman Marc Tilker excused himself from the vote, stating he knew more than one of the officers. Commission member Eddie Flores Jr. was not present during the commission's Dec. 15 meeting and also did not vote.

Watase emphasized that the decision did not involve the merits of the case, only whether he was entitled to legal counsel. He also stressed that the decision does not mean the six others will be denied their requests.

"We want to hear their arguments," he said. "They need to have a fair hearing in front of us and we're not going to pre-judge any individual."

The four officers charged with tampering with a government record are Christopher Bugarin, Patrick Bugarin, Leighton Kato and Michael Krekel.

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