Newport Beach Cops Lose Demand to End Lawsuit Over Taxi Fare Dispute

Illustration by Jeff Drew

A private attorney representing the city of Newport Beach insists two police officers—who pummeled and jailed an unarmed 4-foot, 11-inch female over a pending $16.70 private taxi bill—were actually “trying to help a drunk woman pay her cab driver and avoid arrest.”

That’s part of the argument Irvine-based lawyer Brian Wright-Bushman made in hopes of winning pretrial summary judgment against plaintiff Ashley Lauren Watts, who involuntarily entered a law-enforcement Twilight Zone in the wee hours of June 26, 2016.

After drinking several glasses of wine with her boyfriend and an acquaintance at the Island Hotel bar in Newport Beach, Watts hailed a 24/7 Yellow Cab for a 10-minute ride home. She handed driver Ali Khandantabrizi her credit card upon arrival, but the charge was declined.

Wright-Bushman sees the situation as a criminal-theft plot to use the cab “while knowing that she had no means of paying for the ride.” But, according to Watts’ attorney Jerry Steering, reality isn’t so nefarious. In the weeks prior to going to the Island Hotel, the woman had canceled her credit card and ordered a replacement because of an identity-theft issue. Steering says Watts accidentally grabbed the canceled card before leaving and didn’t know she’d handed the wrong one to Khandantabrizi.

Confused over the card not working, she asked the cab driver if she could settle the fare by retrieving cash from inside her apartment, which was located not in a crime-ridden area, but near Pacific Coast Highway and Balboa Island. Khandantabrizi may have experienced previous customers cheating him; he refused and elevated the situation by calling the 911 emergency phone line.

The Newport Beach Police Department (NBPD) dispatched officers Christine Maroney and Monica Aguilar to the scene. Watts, 30, again requested permission to get cash from her home. Maroney and Aguilar debated whether to take her to jail for supposedly committing a crime, but they eventually agreed to the request, following her to the front door. When the officers attempted to enter the residence behind her, Watts stated, “No, no. I did not invite you in,” according to a police audio recording.

Maroney’s priority quickly shifted from resolving the cab bill without unnecessary drama to confronting the perceived challenge of her state-granted authority. “Okay, then I’m just going to take you to jail,” the officer said. Watts, who had no criminal record, was not allowed to get the cash so that everybody could go on with their lives. Instead, the officers grabbed Watts, slammed her face against a wall and kicked her feet out from under her before “violently” tackling and kneeing her, according to a lawsuit filed by Steering, who specializes in excessive-force litigation. Maroney and Aguilar then oddly placed two pairs of handcuffs on the diminutive Watts, dragged her out of her apartment and hauled her to jail for eight hours. They also charged her with three crimes: public intoxication, petty theft and obstructing a police officer.

“A reasonable officer could have believed that [Watts] had formed an intent to defraud the taxi driver prior to getting into the taxi,” Wright-Bushman asserted before opining that “people usually know when their credit card is not working.”

Never mind that the city’s attorney didn’t rationally explain why Watts would have tried to commit a $16.70 crime, then flee without detection while the taxi was idling at her home or when the cops stood at her front door in possession of a banking card that contained her name. “The fact that [she] offered to get the money from her apartment to pay the taxi driver did not overcome the reasonableness of believing the plaintiff intended to defraud the taxi driver because a reasonable officer could have believed, at the time the arrest was made, that her offer to pay was not credible,” according to Wright-Bushman, who laughably insists Watts could have successfully committed her crime “by retreating into her home and not coming out again.”

In the 22-page complaint filed inside Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, Steering accused the officers of injuring and traumatizing his client. “Maroney and Aguilar became agitated with Ms. Watts for merely refusing to consent to a warrantless police entry into her home and verbally protesting the same, something she had an absolute [First Amendment] right to do,” the attorney wrote.

The Orange County district attorney’s office wasn’t impressed with the NBPD case either. At the outset, it rejected the claim that Watts had obstructed the cops, then dropped the other two charges five months later.

Wright-Bushman blames Watts—not the officers—for escalating the dispute. In April, he told U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford, who is presiding over the ongoing civil lawsuit, that he believes “the story should have ended [with the dismissal of charges], but the plaintiff has decided to turn a minor incident into a federal case.” After all, the city’s attorney claims, Maroney and Aguilar had probable cause to believe crimes had been committed and had acted professionally.

Steering sees the mess differently. “In their arrest reports of the incident, Maroney and Aguilar attempted to minimize their use of force by suggesting that they ‘guided’ and ‘escorted’ Watts to the ground,” he wrote. “However, both [cops] intentionally and brutally tackled the plaintiff to the ground. The audio recording of the incident accurately displays the aggression and ferocity with which both officers unilaterally decided to use force upon her while falsely arresting her.”

At a June hearing, Guilford wondered aloud why the taxi driver had “called the cops over a couple of bucks.” Steering explained that Khandantabrizi didn’t support the police officers’ actions. “After they arrested Ashley Watts, they asked the cabbie, ‘Do you want to prosecute?’ He goes, “No, no way.’ Then officer Aguilar is in a kind of panic.”

Nonetheless, Wright-Bushman asked the judge to award the cops summary judgment, but Guilford declined, noting a requirement to view the case in a light most favorable to the plaintiff at this stage. “The court cannot conclude that the officers had probable cause to arrest Watts based on the undisputed facts,” Guilford wrote on June 4. “The main fact the Newport Beach defendants rely on to show there was a ‘fair probability’ that Watts intended to defraud the cab driver is that her credit card didn’t work. But this alone isn’t enough to support probable cause. If it were, any time someone’s credit card gets declined after services are provided, the police would have probable cause to arrest the person for theft by false pretenses.”

Calling them “unconvincing” arguments, the judge also rejected the cops’ claim that Watts’ intoxication as well as her refusal to permit them inside the apartment created other “fair” probabilities that she didn’t intend to get the money. Guilford added, “All the facts the defendants cite to support the reasonableness of the officers’ conduct show only a commercial default—not any intent to defraud.”

The case is now inching forward with a scheduled March 2019 pretrial-status conference.

R. Scott Moxley’s award-winning investigative journalism has touched nerves for two decades. An angry congressman threatened to break Moxley’s knee caps. A dirty sheriff promised his critical reporting was irrelevant and then landed in prison. The U.S. House of Representatives debated his work. Federal prosecutors credited his stories for the arrest of a doctor who sold fake medicine to dying patients. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *