By JOSH FRIEDMAN
A total of 11 current and former law enforcement officers have been charged with and convicted of crimes in San Luis Obispo County since 2013, according to records obtained by UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. [Tribune]
Of the 11 cases, nine were DUIs or related to drunk driving. The other two began as felony grand theft and assault with a deadly weapon cases.
But, the majority of the officers charged in SLO County over this period received some type of plea deal. Several of the officers’ sentences were significantly reduced as a result of the deals they struck with prosecutors, raising questions over alleged preferential treatment.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, however, disputes that the officers charged with and convicted of crimes received preferential treatment.
In each case except one, the officer’s arrest did not initially appear in the news media. But five of the nine DUI cases were eventually covered by local media prior to the conclusion of the court proceedings.
One case in which an officer allegedly received preferential treatment stemmed from an Oct. 2017 DUI arrest by the CHP in Paso Robles. Neil Patel, an off-duty Lompoc police officer who four years prior was the department’s “Top Cop, was driving with a blood alcohol level of .24, or three times the legal limit, according to his breath alcohol test.
A handwritten note in court records shows the prosecution and Patel’s defense attorney reached an agreement that the officer’s blood alcohol level be reduced to .19. The agreement enabled Patel to avoid a sentencing enhancement for having a blood alcohol level of .20 or higher.
Patel received a sentence of just five days in SLO County Jail after pleading no contest to a single misdemeanor DUI charge. He was also required to complete a six-month DUI class.
Having a a BAC of .20 or higher typically requires a person convicted of DUI to serve 10 days in jail and complete a nine-month course.
Another case involved a corrections officer driving with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. Yet his misdemeanor DUI charges were reduced to alcohol related reckless driving, known as “wet reckless,” in part because he “demonstrated excellent character.”
In the assault with a deadly weapon case, a retired lieutenant at the Men’s Colony reversed his Range Rover into a pedestrian in downtown San Luis Obispo, fracturing the man’s skull. Initially, the former correctional officer was charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon with an enhancement for causing great bodily injury.
Prosecutors reduced the charge to a misdemeanor count of reckless driving, and the retired officer avoided jail time despite initially facing a maximum sentence of six years in prison.
The grand theft case involved a SLO County Sheriff’s deputy stealing bicycles from the jail that were donated to the bikes-for-kids program. The deputy initially faced a felony grand theft charge for allegedly stealing about $1,560 worth of bicycles.
But, prosecutors agreed to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor, and the former deputy received a 45-day jail sentence. Ultimately, he served 23 days in jail.
In some occasions, prosecutors justified the reduced sentencing by stating the officer showed remorse.
District Attorney Dan Dow said prosecutors do not treat law enforcement officers any different than citizens when charged with a crime. Dow released police and investigative reports about the cases which showed prosecutors acted within the court’s sentencing guidelines, even though charges were reduced.