Monday, April 27, 2015
Times Story Leads to A.G. Opinion That Daunts Conferring of Honorary Badges
By ROGER M. GRACE
Twelfth in a Series
It was a March 13, 2006 Los Angeles Times article that led to the near-demise of the practice of local government officials in California giving out badges—ones that look like real law enforcement emblems and are apt to be perceived as such—to political donors, office-holders, and others.
It’s not that the article was hard-hitting or revealed major abuses of the badges. What the article did, however, was to precipitate a request by Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask to the Office of Attorney General Bill Lockyer to clarify the law relating to the gift of look-alike badges. The following year, the A.G.’s Office, of which Jerry Brown had become chief, rendered an opinion to Trask’s successor, Rod Pacheco.
That opinion instilled in government officials an awareness that the gift of such badges could lead to penal consequences for them, not just for recipients who misused these objects.
Three Southern California groups—the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homeland Security Support Unit, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office Bureau of Justice, and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Executive Council—are spotlighted in the March 13, 2006 investigative report in the Times. Staff writers Stuart Pfeifer and Lance Pugmire point out in their piece that Glendora tire shop owner Gary A. Nalbandian was the guiding light behind all three volunteer security units, formed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The units were comprised predominantly of multilingual Armenian Americans, capable of translating documents from Arabic to English.
The gist of the piece is that members of the groups raised political funds for the respective heads of the offices and, at least in the Inland Empire counties, were rewarded with badges.
“They were there for the badges,” a former member of the Riverside corps is quoted as saying.
Relevance of the report to Los Angeles County was slim. As the Times report acknowledges, Sheriff Lee Baca only supplied identification cards to members of the unit (unless, of course, they were among the dozen-or-so who, independently of being in the support unit, served—as Nalbandian did—in the sheriff’s reserves and were thus entitled to badges).
Also, timeliness seems lacking. The discourse reports that Riverside Sheriff Bob Doyle and San Bernardino District Attorney Mike Ramos “said they believed their badges were so different from those used by sworn deputies that they did not violate state law” at the time they authorized their issuance, “but both men have subsequently asked Nalbandian to disband the law enforcement support groups and return the badges and identification cards.”
This was really old news in connection with San Bernardino County. The article relates:
“Ramos said he asked Nalbandian to return the badges in October 2003 because he came to realize ‘it looks horrible’ to award badges to campaign donors and that the name ‘Bureau of Justice’ sounded too much like a real police organization.”
Pfeifer and Pugmire also recite:
“Doyle said he told Nalbandian to collect the badges in July [of 2005] because he wasn’t utilizing the groups’ services and because he was warned at a conference about the ethical problems of issuing badges to civilians.”
(Whether that happened in 2005 in July or in February—as stated in a March 21 article in the Riverside Press-Enterprise—it remains that Doyle’s practice was not a current one.)
On the other hand, the issue wasn’t moot.
If Doyle had taken the same stance as Ramos—that a mistake had been made in issuing the badges and it wouldn’t be done again—concerns would, in all probability, have dissipated. Instead, Doyle belligerently insisted that he had done nothing wrong. In fact, according to the March 22 issue of the Press-Enterprise, the sheriff declared “that he had not ruled out issuing more badges.”
That report follows by one day an article in the Press-Enterprise telling of Trask’s request for an A.G. opinion.
The March 21 edition of that newspaper also contains an editorial, expressing this view:
“Supervisor Jeff Stone is convinced the Executive Council is a den of political scandal and has introduced an ordinance to ensure that ‘no badge be issued to any civilian in exchange for receiving any political financial contributions or endorsements.’ But Doyle tells us that only six of the Executive Council’s 106 members have donated to the sheriff’s campaigns. In fact, Stone’s proposal is more political than substantive, and his fellow supervisors should reject it.
“But that does not mean Doyle should continue distributing the unofficial badges, even if such badges are common in California. The unofficial badges’ size and design make them look authentic enough to allow abuse.
“The sheriff says the primary reason for the civilian badges is to provide the Executive Council with convenient access to sheriff’s facilities. In that case, simple identification cards—or ‘badges’ that are too small or too unique to be confused with the real thing—should be sufficient.”
Stone withdrew his motion—which would have barred the issuance of a badge to a civilian unless authorized by the Board of Supervisors—when it was clear it would not be passed, a March 22 Press-Enterprise article says.
It quotes Stone as asserting that issuance of the honorary badges “tarnishes the sheriff’s badge,” and counseling that the “appearance of an impropriety is just as important as the impropriety itself.”
The Times managed to stir the embers a bit. An article in its March 31 edition discloses that the previous year, a man who received an honorary Riverside deputy sheriff badge from Doyle reportedly flashed that badge in the course of demanding the payment of a debt, and declared:
“I work for the Sheriff’s Department, and if you don’t give me the money by 5 o’clock, you’re going to be in big trouble.”
The man pled no contest in Orange Superior Court to a charge of impersonating a police officer, drawing a 60 day jail sentence, which he served under house arrest.
Mark Mush’s April 3 column in The Californian (based in Temecula) and in other newspapers, remarks:
There is a scene in the Mel Brooks movie, “Blazing Saddles,” where the character Hedley Lamarr is recruiting thugs to attack a town. As each recruit is signed up, they are given a badge. One Mexican bandit refuses his with the now classic line, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”
This is a line I wish Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle would consider using instead of rewarding his political cronies and donors with honorary badges that can too easily be confused with real Sheriff’s Department credentials. Badges should be left only to the realm of sworn peace officers, not political donors.
Unfortunately, Doyle refuses to budge on this issue at the peril of the unknowing public.
One laughable argument that Doyle says supports the need for these badges are their use by members of the Sheriff’s Executive Council. During meetings, members show their badges as a form of identification, according to Doyle. This is utter nonsense. I can just imagine someone introducing themselves to another fundraiser attendee and having the other person say, “I don’t believe you. Show me your badge.”
Another Southland county—Orange—became engulfed in the badge controversy.
A May 10 article in the Times reports:
An Orange County businessman and political ally of Sheriff Michael S. Carona allegedly misrepresented himself as a deputy sheriff to an airline employee during a dispute that began after he returned from a hunting trip and found his baggage—including his guns and game meat—were missing.
Stephen Mensinger, who has no police powers but is authorized to carry a badge as a civilian volunteer reserve, allegedly referred to the Alaska Airline attendant as a “dumb blond[e],” snapped pictures of her with his cellphone and said he could have her fired.
The incident at John Wayne Airport was detailed by sources inside the Sheriff’s Department familiar with official records….
The confrontation came at a time when Carona was weathering a series of scandals within his reserve program, including the misuse of credentials. In one case, his personal martial-arts instructor was arrested for allegedly flashing his badge and gun at a group of golfers he thought were playing too slowly. In another, the owner of an upscale restaurant resigned in the midst of an internal affairs investigation into allegations he flashed his badge during a parking lot dispute.
Lower in the Times story, mention is made that the incident occurred eight months earlier.
The A.G. opinion in response to Trask’s inquiry was released on July 30, 2007.
That opinion (previously discussed here) declares that giving someone a badge that “would deceive an ordinary reasonable person into believing that it was authorized for use by a peace officer” is a misdemeanor—a proposition made clear by the applicable statute, Penal Code §538d. The version then in effect reads, in relevant part:
“Any person who willfully wears, exhibits, or uses, or who willfully…gives…any badge, insignia, emblem, device, or any label, certificate, card, or writing, which falsely purports to be authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, or which so resembles the authorized badge, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card, or writing of a peace officer as would deceive an ordinary reasonable person into believing that it is authorized for the use of one who by law is given the authority of a peace officer, is guilty of a misdemeanor….”
The opinion, which merely points out what the statute ordains, was treated in press accounts as one generating a new standard.
The A.G.’s Office had previously interpreted §538d, and its earlier advisements should well have alerted public officials to the criminality of bestowing badges that looked like real ones.
A 1985 opinion declares that §538d “would prohibit the use of a badge which ‘resembles’ an authorized peace officer’s badge, eg, a badge shaped or inscribed similarly to that of the sheriffs department’s badge.” If one who “uses” such a badge commits a misdemeanor, it necessarily follows that one who “gives” such a badge does, also, for both acts are treated alike under the statute.
Be that as it may, the message in the 2007 opinion, directly applying to any government officials who “gives” a badge was heard. Numerous governmental entities quickly reformed their practices—and municipal, county, and state agencies issued demands for the return of badges that they shouldn’t have issued, with a flurry of metal pieces being tossed back.
The 2007 opinion was largely effective in stemming the gift of, and flashing of, faux law enforcement badges.
Members of the cast of characters in the 2006 drama in the Southland, following the Times article, have had divergent fates.
RAMOS is serving his fourth consecutive term as San Bernardino D.A.
DOYLE was reelected in 2006 as Riverside County sheriff, coroner, and public administrator, but resigned the following year to accept an appointment to the state Parole Board.
NALBANDIAN made his way up to the post of chief of the sheriff’s reserves. On Nov. 12, 2011, more than 450 persons gathered at an event at which then-Sheriff Lee Baca pinned the badge on him. Following Baca’s Jan. 3, 2014 resignation, Orange County Undersheriff John Scott became interim sheriff here, and soon booted 40-or-so persons, including Nalbandian, from the reserves. An April 14 article in the Times says Scott would not comment on his ouster of Nalbandian, but suggests that he purged the reserves of members he perceived as being there through political connections.
CARONA no longer resides in Orange County. He’s in federal prison in Colorado, and is expected to be there until Nov. 8, under a five-year sentence. On Jan. 16, 2009, Corona was convicted in U.S. District court of witness tampering, but was acquitted of various corruption charges. The sheriff resigned from office effective Jan. 14, 2008, while under indictment.
STONE was elected last year to the state Senate. He represents Riverside County’s Coachella Valley. He won the seat despite a pre-primary revelation that in the course of a heated tiff with another motorist, he flashed his supervisor badge, inducing a belief on the part of his adversary that he was a law enforcement officer. A May 25, 2014 piece in the Press-Telegram observes that when the 2007 A.G. opinion was issued, “the fact that members of the Board of Supervisors themselves had Sheriff’s Department-issued badges escaped notice,” and they weren’t recalled. The existence of those badges was, however, not a secret. A March 14, 2006 article in the Times, appearing at the period when Stone was assailing Doyle for having issued courtesy badges, says: “Doyle…accused Stone of ‘political grandstanding’ and being a hypocrite because Stone also has a badge—one that is issued to county supervisors.”
MENSINGER is now mayor of Costa Mesa.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company