Tuesday, November 22, 2010 | Almost a year after being hit by an Orange County Sheriff’s Department patrol car and then written up for failing to stop for an emergency vehicle, motorcyclist Kevin Halliburton finally had a top Sheriff’s Department official admit that he was unfairly blamed for the accident.
Not only did Assistant Sheriff Mike James advise Halliburton that the deputy driving the patrol car was found at fault in the accident, but he also acknowledged that the department mishandled allegations that Halliburton was intoxicated in the accident report.
“We did not handle this very well,” James said. “We did not provide Mr. Halliburton the service he deserved. We have made changes to help ensure we don’t repeat this,” James said this week during an interview after his meeting with Halliburton.
Meanwhile, two Orange County supervisors are calling for an investigation by the county’s Office of Independent Review.
Voice of OC first published Halliburton’s story in September.
On Dec. 14, 2009, the 53-year-old was riding his motorcycle to a pharmacy in Lake Forest when the patrol car, chasing a suspect, shot out of a shopping center driveway and crashed into Halliburton.
While the patrol car’s audio recording system revealed the deputy, Mark Froome, acknowledging fault in the accident, the resulting report blamed Halliburton.
The audio recording also revealed the investigating deputy at the scene coaching Froome to question Halliburton about drinking so he would have “leeway” in the accident report.
The report said that Halliburton was “intoxicated” even though he was never given a Breathalyzer test and acknowledged having only one beer with dinner that night.
Halliburton used the state’s public records law to obtain a copy of the patrol car’s video and audiotapes, and then presented the evidence of the deputy’s fault to Sheriff’s Department officials.
Yet for months, they refused to change the conclusions of the report.
Following the Voice of OC story on Halliburton, the department began looking into the incident. Since, the department’s traffic review committee and internal affairs division have each launched investigations.
And last week James sat down with Halliburton and owned up to the department’s mistakes.
James gave Halliburton an amendment to the report that, ironically, was written by the first deputy, who had told Halliburton he wouldn’t change the conclusions, and added up to what Halliburton has said all along: “It was physically impossible to stop,” he said.
Halliburton said James, during the long meeting, “did not do any defending. He took responsibility and said they messed up.”
James doesn’t believe anything nefarious occurred that night. But he agrees that any reasonable person listening to the deputies’ talk could conclude so.
“They never should have been investigating their own accident,” Halliburton said.
James agreed with Halliburton on that point and said that based on the incident, cooperative agreements are being established with the California Highway Patrol and other agencies to investigate officer-involved incidents.
James would not comment on specific deputy actions because an internal probe is underway.
Halliburton’s incident prompts disturbing questions about how well an average citizen can do when trying to hold the department accountable.
Since Sheriff Sandra Hutchens took over in the wake of the 2008 federal indictment of former Sheriff Mike Carona on corruption charges, she has often talked about changing the culture.
But Halliburton’s case has some county supervisors wondering if there have been any significant changes.
Halliburton’s experience “says that there’s still a lot of work to be done on the culture,” said County Supervisor Pat Bates. “And our Office of Independent Review should focus on that going forward.”
Supervisor Shawn Nelson echoed Bates’ sentiments. “It’s outrageous,” Nelson said. “It’s every honest citizen’s worst fear. Come on.”
According to county records, there have been more than 140 accidents involving deputies since 2007.
Nelson wonders, “How many guys like Halliburton are there that would never bother? What are the odds that the guy would ask for a public records request” of the patrol car audio?
“We’ve got an Office of Independent Review,” Nelson said, echoing Bates’ sentiment. “And that’s a great assignment.”
Halliburton said that given his experience, county officials should take a look.
“It’s important for people to know they’re getting a fair shake,” he said.