The panel overseeing police OKs lawyers' costs for a duo accused of filing false reports
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 12, 2011
The Honolulu Police Commission has voted to pay the attorneys' fees for two police officers charged with filing false reports at drunken-driving checkpoints but denied the same requests made by five other officers who are co-defendants.
The seven officers, all part of HPD Traffic Division's Selective Enforcement Unit that organizes roadblocks to catch motorists driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, are scheduled to go to trial March 28 before Circuit Judge Michael Wilson.
The charges allege that police officers wrote reports to say two sergeants were at DUI checkpoints when they were not. Prosecutors allege this was an attempt to get overtime pay for the sergeants.
State law says a police officer prosecuted for a crime "for acts done in the performance of the officer's duty as a police officer" shall be represented and defended by an attorney paid for by the city.
In decisions made last month and released publicly last week, officers Leighton Kato and Michael R. Krekel were granted legal fees. Both had originally been denied legal counsel by the city Corporation Counsel's Office.
Sgts. Aaron M. Bernal and Duke K.C. Zoller, and officers Christopher Bugarin, Patrick Bugarin and Brian J. Morris, were denied their requests. Like Kato and Krekel, the five had been denied counsel pay by city attorneys.
Commission Vice Chairman Craig Watase, who led the hearings, said the panel's duty was to determine whether each individual officer's actions were committed in the course of their duties.
"We didn't look at them as a group; we looked at the individual merits of what was presented to us," Watase said. Attorneys for Kato and Krekel "had good presentations that ... caused the commission to believe that they were doing their jobs."
Commission Chairman Michael Tilker excused himself from the proceedings, stating that he knows several of the officers personally.
Watase emphasized that the commission's decisions should not be viewed as determinations of guilt or innocence.
"On our side, we recognize that an officer could still be innocent even though in our determination he was not doing something within the scope of his job. That doesn't mean necessarily that he was doing something illegal," he said.
But to Kato's and Krekel's attorneys, the commission's decisions are a good omen.
Jeffrey Hawk, Krekel's attorney, said it was easy to make clear to the commission that the two men did nothing wrong.
"What happened is explainable," he said. "There's really no evidence whatsoever that these two officers were involved in any wrongdoing. These are pretty straight cops."
Thomas Otake, Kato's attorney, said that if prosecutors looked at the officers individually rather than as a unit, "Officer Kato would never have been charged, and that's exactly what I asked the commissioners to do."
Commissioners needed to find that Kato was performing his duties as he was trained and ordered in order to grant legal fees. "Obviously, if they believed he did something wrong, they wouldn't be (paying for counsel)."
Commissioners make decisions based on a lower standard than does a court.
"If the Police Commission, using a lower standard, couldn't find sufficient evidence, our position is that the case should be thrown out at trial," Otake said, adding that he has asked prosecutors to dismiss the case against Kato.
Hawk said, "I hope this is a good sign for trial."
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Peter Marrack, who is handling the seven cases, could not be reached for comment.
Attorneys for the two sergeants and the three other officers charged did not return calls.
Noting that there has been a recent spate of officers being charged with crimes, Watase, the panel's vice chairman, said, "This administration, this chief and this Police Commission is not going to just turn a blind eye."