You cannot slug a cop. It's that simple.
And the police cannot assault prisoners.
This simple bargain between law enforcement and the rest of us is one of the things that separates Americans from the denizens of Iraq and every other dusky pest hole.
Keeping the scales even on this bargain is apparently too big a challenge for County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his minions.
Last November, two Phoenix cops attacked a shackled and compliant prisoner. Channel 12's helicopter taped the blows while hovering over the scene of the arrest.
The Phoenix Police Department suspended the two officers: One took 40 hours on the bench, the other stood down for 200.
In a separate incident, citizen Louie Arriaga returned to court for the third time this past August.
Stopped for a traffic ticket, Arriaga ended up on the concrete grappling with a cop. Convicted of resisting arrest and aggravated assault, Arriaga got 10 years without chance of parole.
After his conviction was overturned, a jury found him guilty again this past summer. Arriaga returned to a cell to await final sentencing on January 3.
Arriaga's situation mirrors that of the two police officers. All parties found themselves on the wrong side of the bargain. Yet what all of them did is less important than the response of the law.
In an extraordinary development, Judge Andrew Klein met with prosecutors after the verdict. The prisoner had already spent two and a half years behind bars on the charges. Hadn't Arriaga served enough time, wondered the judge?
The judge's question lingered without answer for Arriaga's parents as they approached this holiday season. Apprehension and hope struggled within the retired couple.
The father, Luciano Sr., and his wife, Lydia, never gave up. Although their boy had been found guilty again in August, they had reason to believe.
Chad Schell, Arriaga's lawyer, met with the parents after the in-chambers conference with the judge at the conclusion of the trial.
"Schell told us the judge didn't see why our son needed to serve any more time in jail. The prosecutor agreed. But Schell said the police were against this," recalled Luciano Sr.
One man thought he might be able to bridge the difference with the cops.
Reverend Oscar Tillman, head of the local NAACP, attended every judicial proceeding involving Arriaga. He volunteered to speak to the police chief and get back to the parents.
Then the waiting began.
The phone in the Arriaga household finally rang on November 1 at 7 p.m.
Officers Thomas Beck and Steven Huddleston were among a group of at least half a dozen police officers who apprehended a Mexican national suspected of robbing and assaulting a pregnant woman last November. A hovering helicopter videotaped the arrest and apparent abuse. A subsequent investigation by the authorities produced the following summary by the police department:
"You [Beck] were then seen delivering what appeared to be a quick strike to the suspect's groin . . . the suspect was neither actively nor passively resisting, and his hands were cuffed behind his back."
"After the suspect was handcuffed and lying on his stomach, you [Huddleston] were observed standing on the back of the suspect's left knee with your right foot, elevating yourself and applying all your weight on the back of the suspect's knee . . . the suspect appeared to be offering no resistance, and was not moving. A few seconds later, another officer lifted the suspect by his arms and began walking him to a patrol car. You threw an elbow to the suspect's face."
When County Attorney Andrew Thomas reviewed the report sent to his office by the police department, he declined to prosecute the officers involved. A spokesman for the prosecutor explained to Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini, "We examined the videotape closely and concluded that a momentary stand on a leg was not criminal. A close review of the tape showed there was a shoulder-to-shoulder shove but no elbow to the face. A search for weapons did include the groin area."
You can easily make the case that prosecutors ignored the videotaped evidence, ignored the police department's own investigation of the abuse, but at the end of the day you can't help but feel that justice was done. Officers Beck and Huddleston lost their tempers and lashed out, but the department didn't cover up the incident. They suspended the cops and passed the paperwork to the prosecutor for review.
The officers did not end up in court and did not lose their careers.
And, frankly, that is a good thing.
Within moments of answering their phone, the Arriagas' Thanksgiving plans took on a rapturous note.
"Reverend Tillman called and said he'd talked to the Chief of Police. He said Officer Poole was okay with time served," remembered Mr. Arriaga. "This was the best news we'd heard in our entire lives."
His wife's response matched his.
"My heart started pounding," recalled Lydia Arriaga. "All this time, and now, finally . . ."
The holiday tidings of joy crashed in despair one week before Thanksgiving.
The Reverend Tillman called back on November 18 and said the police chief claimed that there had been a miscommunication.
Officer Poole wanted their son to serve the full sentence. Under no circumstances did he want Louie to get out on time served.
"This was so cruel, so bad," remembered Luciano Sr. "Our hopes had been raised sky high, and now this."
Now his wife's despair mirrored his.
"I don't wish this on anybody," said Lydia. "My heart went to the floor."
Officer Warren Poole confronted Louie Arriaga for rolling through a stop sign on February 6, 2002. The traffic ticket did not hold up in court when the police officer admitted that he could not actually see the stop sign from where his patrol car was parked. But for nearly four years now, the courts have attempted to sort out what happened after the cop spoke to Arriaga.
In several statements to fellow police officers, Officer Poole said he chased Arriaga on foot and tackled him from behind. But Poole told the investigating detective that he reached out and grabbed Arriaga because he didn't think the suspect would cooperate. There is no record, there are no statements, there is no testimony that Arriaga was verbally abusive. The officer simply didn't like the way Arriaga looked, he didn't like the vibe.
Poole did not ask for a license, registration, proof of insurance, or inform Arriaga of the offense.
"I was afraid he was going to run," testified Officer Poole in court. "But at no time did Mr. Arriaga run from me."
Wrestled to the ground and struggling, Arriaga found himself in a chokehold with the much larger Poole on top of him. Fearing for his life, Arriaga reached out, grabbed a plank and swung it backward over his head and struck the police officer.
In his first trial, Arriaga was found guilty of resisting arrest, but the jury hung on the more serious charge of aggravated assault, with the majority voting to find him innocent.
The prosecutor offered to let him out of a second trial if he would admit guilt and accept probation. No more jail time was demanded.
But Arriaga refused to plead guilty for something he felt he had not done.
Convicted at his second trial, Arriaga was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but Judge Crane McClennen noted in an unsuccessful appeal to the Clemency Board: "The sentence the law requires this Court to impose is clearly excessive . . . [Arriaga] acted on the spur of the moment fearing for his own well being. It was just a struggle that got out of hand. If this Court had the discretion, this Court would have considered placing the defendant on probation."
At the conclusion of the trial this past August, yet another judge attempted to intervene in a rather extraordinary way.
Judge Klein took the remarkable step of meeting with the County Attorney's Office after telling the lawyers on both sides of the case that justice appeared to call for the release of Arriaga with time served.
The Arriaga family fought their case like cornered animals. Before the most recent trial, they once again refused a settlement based upon time served. The retired parents have mortgaged the home they owned free and clear, they have sold off retirement holdings, they have spent everything they have -- substantially over six figures -- and their son spent two years in prison. They filed a reckless civil suit for damages.
But the authorities are no less pigheaded.
The Reverend Tillman thought he had an agreement with the Chief of Police, Jack Harris.
"He told me Poole is okay with time served," repeated Reverend Tillman.
But according to the head of the NAACP, the police department's attorney, Gerald Richards, stoutly opposed any settlement.
"Richards called me back," recalled Tillman. "He said there'd been a miscommunication. The chief then called and said the same thing. Gerald has made this personal. He said that Arriaga's father disrespected him at one of the legal proceedings."
Neither Richards nor Harris returned calls for comment.
What the Reverend Tillman did not know was that his conversations with police officials were all a charade. When he phoned the Arriaga family on November 1, with a message of reconciliation, the deal for more of their son's blood had already been cut. The prosecutor's office made its decision weeks earlier.
On October 7, Judge Klein met with the County Attorney, Officer Poole, a police supervisor, and Poole's civil attorney. While he remained hopeful, Judge Klein found the meeting ominous.
"I think there are forces at play here that go beyond a victim merely deciding whether to agree to offer the defendant a plea after the trial," wrote Judge Klein to Arriaga's attorney.
On October 13, Leonard Ruiz, head of the criminal division, responded in writing to the judge's efforts at compromise. Following his return to jail, Arriaga had now logged two and a half years behind bars. The prosecutor was not satisfied.
He asked for a guilty plea that included four and a half years, adding two years to what Arriaga had already served. Additionally, Arriaga would be compelled to pay Officer Poole $1,000, renounce all claims of self-defense, drop all claims or suits, apologize in writing and orally to Officer Poole for Arriaga's conduct at the time he was stopped "and for his conduct towards Officer Poole since the said incident."
Apparently, Arriaga's rigorous defense in court, his refusal to bargain, his Web site (setlouiefree.com) and his conversations with me, which resulted in two previous articles on the case, now necessitate an apology.
Because Arriaga refused this plea agreement, he will face the original sentence of 10 years, which the judge can reduce to seven.
"To enter a guilty plea by an innocent man does not make any sense," observed Luciano Sr.
The County Attorney declined comment.
Officer Thomas Beck: one-week suspension. Officer Steven Huddleston: five-week suspension.
The offer to Luciano Arriaga: four and a half years in prison.
County Attorney Andrew Thomas rules like a mullah presiding over a dusky pest hole.
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