The Humboldt County District Attorney's Office dropped its nine-month case against Eureka Police Sgt. Adam Laird Friday after prosecutors decided they couldn't prove the officer used excessive force in a 2012 arrest and attempted to cover it up.
"Based on new evidence the people have discovered, we don't believe we can prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt," Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees told the court.
Immediately following the hearing, Rees said his office had a pair of independent experts review a video tape of Laird's Dec. 6, 2012 arrest of a juvenile suspect and, based on their opinions, decided it should drop the case.
Laird's attorney, Patrik Griego, said a total of five independent experts have now reviewed the case, with all concluding that Laird's use of force was "reasonable, appropriate and not excessive."
For his part, Laird said he's relieved the criminal charges have been dismissed but he was in no mood for celebration.
"I would just say it's been an extremely difficult process for me and my family," he said, adding that he's grateful the DA's Office finally pulled the plug on the case. "My only wish is that the DA's Office would have had independent experts — not just experts provided by EPD — review this case before arresting me blocks away from my daughter's school."
Prosecutors had alleged that Laird used excessive force during the 2012 arrest — kicking a juvenile suspect as he lay on the ground being handcuffed by another officer — and that he then filed a false police report on the incident. Laird pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges of assault under the color of authority and knowingly filing a false report in the case and, through his attorney, argued that he was being discriminated against by fellow EPD officers and singled out for prosecution because of his political activities and his staunch support of controversial former EPD Chief Garr Nielsen.
Hired by EPD in 2005, Laird has been on paid administrative leave since Dec. 16, 2012. While he was served by the city with a notice of intent to terminate his employment on Oct. 3, 2013, the city has yet to officially fire him. Reached Friday, Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills said the dismissal of the criminal case facing Laird will not change the city's decision regarding his termination.
"That changes nothing from an administrative standpoint," Mills said, adding that he couldn't comment on any specifics of the case.
Prosecutors' decision to dismiss the case comes just a couple of weeks after Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Marilyn Miles ordered the DA's Office and EPD to compile and turn over a host of documents, including citizen complaints, internal affairs investigations and correspondences between a host of EPD commanders and city officials. With the ruling, Miles found that Griego had shown enough evidence of the essential elements for a discriminatory prosecution defense to warrant granting access to the documents that would allow the defense to explore the issue.
The Dec. 6, 2012 incident occurred after Laird and other officers responded to a call of a gang fight in progress and ultimately wound up in a foot chase with a juvenile suspect. An officer had the suspect on the ground and was working to cuff him when Laird arrived and struck the suspect in the lower back with his foot. Prosecutors alleged the foot strikes were excessive and unwarranted, but Griego contended his client acted appropriately in dealing with a combative, dangerous and noncompliant suspect.
Griego has contended from the outset of the case that Laird — who rose quickly through the ranks of EPD amid what some have deemed an insurrection mounted against Nielsen — was being unfairly targeted by his fellow officers, both because of his allegiance to Nielsen and his support of liberal politicians, including former Eureka City Councilman Larry Glass. Further, Griego argued that EPD kept evidence showing Laird's innocence from the DA's Office and that the department handled the case dramatically differently than it has handled other excessive force allegations in the past.
In a sworn declaration filed as a part of the case, Nielsen said news of Laird's arrest was troubling, "but didn't surprise me given my belief that elements in the 'old guard' wouldn't hesitate to frame Laird for a crime in order to force him out of EPD." In the declaration, Nielsen also states that not a single excessive force complaint against one of his officers was referred for criminal prosecution. Instead, Nielsen said, such complaints were handled internally.
Laird himself was at the center of at least one of those prior allegations. In 2011, a federal jury found Laird and another officer used excessive force when arresting Martin Frederick Cotton in 2007. Cotton died shortly after being booked into the Humboldt County jail, and the case resulted in a $4.5 million judgment against the city of Eureka and a $30,000 judgment against Laird.
Mills said Friday that he's aware of Griego's allegations about EPD's handling of the case and that, since taking over the department, he has talked his officers and staff and stated very clear that he expects EPD to cooperate fully with any investigation and to not hide anything from view. "I've given direct orders that we do not obstruct any investigation — I've been very forthright and strong about that," Mills said.
During Friday's hearing, Public Defender Joanne Carter attempted to address the court, saying she represents the juvenile Laird was accused of assaulting in the case. Carter said the victim was never notified of the decision to dismiss the case, which is a violation of his rights. Judge Marilyn Miles told Carter that would have no bearing on the dismissal, and asked Carter to contact the DA's Office to voice her concerns.
While Laird declined to comment on exactly what his future might hold, Griego said it will likely include a lawsuit if Eureka follows through with plans to fire him.
"He has not yet been terminated," Griego said. "But if he were to be terminated by EPD, then we would pursue a civil wrongful termination case against the city."
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