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IN PLAIN VIEW

This is a brief account of a Maricopa County deputy sheriff's overreaction and stupidity.

During the sentencing of state Senator Jesus "Chuy" Higuera, I arrived early and took a seat in the front row, near the side door of the courtroom.

A court employee came in the side door and stood directly in front of me, blocking my view of the sentencing.

I tapped her on the back and made a whispered request that she move over so that I could see.

Deputy Sheriff P. Gonzales (as reflected by his name tag) was leaning against the side wall, next to her. He turned and glared at me.

I couldn't understand why Gonzales' ire was directed toward me. It is, after all, part of his job to see that the views of the spectators remain unimpaired by court employees.

A few minutes later, a deputy public defender came through the door and stood directly in front of me.

Once again, I tapped her on the back and asked her to move so that I could see the sentencing.

"Keep your hands off her," Gonzales ordered.
I looked at Gonzales with surprise.
"Do you wish to press charges against this man?" Gonzales asked the deputy public defender.

Now she also looked at Gonzales with surprise.
"Do you wish to press charges against this man?" Gonzales repeated. "I just saw him assault you."

I thought at first Gonzales was joking. Then I saw the look on his face. He was serious.

Gonzales walked over to where I was sitting and stood over me.
"You'd better watch yourself in my court or I'm going to place you under arrest," Gonzales said.

I said nothing more until after Higuera's sentencing was concluded.
On the way out of the courtroom, Deputy Gonzales stood in my path to the door.

I asked him what he had been talking about earlier.
Gonzales scurried over to the deputy public defender to ask her again if she wanted to press assault charges against me.

She seemed embarrassed.
Gonzales then demanded that I accompany him to be questioned. I refused.
"Let's go see Judge [Michael] Ryan," I suggested.
"Judge Ryan's not my boss," he said.

Deputy Gonzales called another deputy and the two of them grabbed me by the arms and propelled me down the hall. Gonzales slammed me up against the wall.

"I'm going to arrest you," Deputy Gonzales kept saying over and over.
At first, my only transgression had been requesting the woman to move. Now it was for showing disrespect to Deputy Gonzales.

"You called me an idiot," he said. "You probably don't know it but now I can charge you with assault. I can throw you in jail. If you don't think I can, just watch me do it to you."

By this time, a radio reporter had followed us down the hall and was standing close by with his tape recorder going.

"Get away from here," Gonzales ordered him.
"I'm not doing anything," the reporter said. "I'm just taping your conversation. It looks like we might have a story here."

Growing ever more frustrated, Gonzales then threatened to arrest the radio reporter unless he turned off his recorder.

Gonzales demanded my driver's license. I gave it to him. He copied down my name and address on a scrap of paper.

"All right," he said, "you're free to go now."

Since the incident, I've been told by several lawyers and private investigators that dozens of people who were in the courtroom that day have been interviewed.

Maybe Deputy Gonzales still thinks he has a case. Or perhaps he's just desperately trying to justify himself to his boss.

None of this should be construed as a knock on Sheriff Tom Agnos. His transformation of the department since his election makes him a candidate for lawman of the year.

You can laugh at the Keystone Kops atmosphere created by a cop like Gonzales. I write about him not because I'm any longer outraged. Now I see the humor.

But the fact is that I was wearing a shirt and tie and carrying a press pass. Even a cop with his emotions as close to the surface as Gonzales had to realize he was in the Maricopa County Courthouse and that a lot of people were watching and listening.

But what happens to people who are encountered after dark on the street by cops like Gonzales?

There's no one to watch them or write about what they do then. Like the cops with their clubs in Los Angeles, they are free to dispense their own justice on the spot. Please use both pullquotes below--musts. DJB.

"I'm going to arrest you," Deputy Gonzales kept saying over and over.

But what happens to people who are encountered after dark on the street by cops like Gonzales?

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Tom Fitzpatrick