Deputy Sean Pearce's Discipline in Fatal Crash Kept Secret by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Office

Detective Sean Pearce has been disciplined following an internal investigation for his role in an on-the-job crash that killed a citizen, but the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office refuses to elaborate further on the action.

Brandon Jones, a spokesman for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, says details may be released when Pearce — the son of recalled Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce — exhausts his appeal process. This could happen possibly in February, he says.

Meantime, the public doesn't get to learn whether an internal affairs probe let Pearce off easy, found that he should be stripped of his badge, or somewhere in between. Pearce will continue to perform his normal duties, Jones confirms.

Evidence showed that Sean Pearce had pushed his unmarked full-size SUV up to 81 miles per hour on 59th Avenue and never turned on his lights and siren before he plowed into a Nissan Cube driven by 63-year-old John Edward Harding, who'd pulled out of a side street.

Pearce had been helping other deputies track a taxi that was more than a mile away, believing — mistakenly, as they soon learned — that a murder suspect was the taxi's passenger. 

The deputy avoided criminal charges in the December 2013 crash when County Attorney Bill Montgomery declined last year to charge him with a crime. Montgomery noted that Pearce was doing his job and that a third vehicle blocked the view of both drivers.

At the time, questions arose about political favoritism: Montgomery is a Republican ally of Sheriff Arpaio's while Russell Pearce, architect of Arizona's infamous Senate Bill 1070, is Arpaio's onetime chief deputy and was serving as first vice chair of the state GOP — despite his 2011 recall.

At a June 2014 news conference, Montgomery dismissed such speculation about favoritism as "amateur analysis."

The city of Glendale issued Pearce a speeding ticket, and City Judge Manuel Delgado allowed him to take a defensive-driving class and have the penalty points removed from his record. However, Delgado overturned that decision after inquiries by New Times, which apparently alerted him to the fact that the case involved a fatality. State law disallows defensive-driving classes as an option for drivers in such cases. Pearce subsequently was convicted of criminal speeding and paid a $714 fine.

An internal investigation to determine whether Pearce violated agency policies was able to move forward when the speeding case concluded seven months ago. New Times has been checking on its status periodically and was always told the investigation was ongoing. This week, Jones forwarded a message about the probe from another officer that states the case is "currently going through appeal" by Pearce and that no records pertaining to the investigation will be released "until a final decision is made by the Merit Board and all appeals are exhausted."

According to county rules, an appeal is defined as an "employee’s written request that the [County Merit System] Commission review a suspension, involuntary demotion, dismissal, furlough, or reduction in force."

The Sheriff's Office, through Jones, declined to comment further or say what Pearce is appealing. Asked how the agency can withhold this information, Jones referred New Times to an exception to public records law approved by the Legislature in 2009.

If you're looking for an example of how the law enforcement community gets its cronies in the Legislature to help keep the public in the dark, it's this law. Sponsored by former right-wing lawmaker Linda Gray, who believes that Roe v. Wade is the root cause of mass shootings, the law protects police from public scrutiny when they're accused of wrongdoing by their departments.

It states that information about an investigation can't be put in a personnel file where it can be viewed or copied by members of the public "until the investigation is complete or the employer has discontinued the investigation." Further, it says, "The investigation is not complete until the conclusion of the appeal process."

In most cases, this might not be a problem. But the Sheriff's Office under Arpaio has been known to sit on investigations indefinitely while whitewashing others. In the ongoing federal contempt and racial-profiling proceedings, it was shown how internal affairs officers avoided asking deputies about property they may have stolen from victims in traffic stops. U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow grilled Arpaio's former lawyer as late as September about its shoddy internal affairs processes.  

"It's awful policy," says First Amendment Coalition policy lawyer Dan Barr of the 2009 public-records exception law. "It doesn't affect the fairness in any way of any appeal by the officer. All it does is deny the public information about an officer who's been disciplined and the facts about it."

Richard Cruz, a local lawyer suing the county on behalf of Harding's family, says he wasn't aware that Pearce was appealing any discipline — but that he'd certainly ask Pearce about it in a deposition scheduled for next week.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.