An Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputy “committed a brutal act of excessive force” against an unarmed citizen 17 minutes before a mid-August sunrise and “then filed a false police report to justify” unnecessary violence, according to court records filed today.
The allegation focuses on deputy Michael Devitt, who approached Mohamed Zahangir Sayem as the 33-year-old man slept in a black, 2016 Jeep Wrangler parked near the Corner Pocket Bar in Stanton.
Sayem appeared intoxicated and incoherent to the officer. According to Devitt’s report, he feared the suspect was going to attack him after stepping out of the vehicle despite orders otherwise, standing over him and “almost” hugging him. Faced with that scenario, Devitt claims he needed to punch Sayem in the face “three or four” times.
But dash cam video made from a police vehicle renders Devitt’s tale false, according to Sayem’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders.
Sanders says the footage shows that Devitt pulled his client out of the vehicle; that the deputy knocked Sayem unconscious with a third punch and continued to punch the non-aggressive man three more times; and there was no attempted “hug.”
“While Devitt admitted in his report to punching Sayem, he fictionalized key details, including Sayem’s violence in order to justify his own use of force,” Sanders advised Superior Court Judge John R. Zitney, who is stationed at the county’s West Court in Little Saigon.
After studying available recordings, the defense lawyer claims Devitt first told Sgt. Christopher Hibbs, an arriving supervisor at the scene, that he wanted to charge Sayem with a felony because of the alleged “bear hug.”
When the deputy wrote his report, however, the hug version disappeared and was replaced with the allegation that Sayem had grabbed and pulled his clothing, and “was going to continue to try and physically assault me.”
Hibbs—who repeatedly fired Taser darts at a handcuffed suspected seated in the back of a patrol vehicle in 2007 and earned a felony indictment—allowed Devitt to alter his story most likely after watching the dashcam video and concocting a new tale that would be more difficult to dispute, Sanders asserts.
A majority Caucasian male jury in Fullerton couldn’t reach a unanimous verdict against Hibbs after several police officers who’d been at the scene altered their grand jury observations of his use of force in anger by claiming severe amnesia during the trial.
In his case, Sayem faces a felony count of resisting an officer and a misdemeanor public intoxication charge.
After Sanders’ filing, Tom Dominguez, union president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, defended the officers and attacked the defense lawyer for “misstating and omitting facts” in a quest for “personal notoriety.”
“These deputies did their jobs,” Dominguez said in a press statement.
A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Nov. 8.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.