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The leader of Santa Ana’s influential police union, Sgt. Gerry Serrano, went from facing potential DUI hit-and-run charges to leading one of the larger police unions in California, according to details of the incident in a police report obtained by Voice of OC.
Westminster police, in their report, said Serrano was driving under the influence of alcohol when he crashed into another car the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011 and fled the scene. Officers arrested Serrano for DUI, and he later refused blood and breath tests before the department cited him for DUI and recommended two misdemeanor charges, according to the report.
Serrano did not return phone messages asking if he disputes the report, which says he had “slurred” speech, told investigating Westminster officers they were “sick,” “pathetic,” and had “better not come to Santa Ana,” and tried to “chest bump” an arresting officer after Serrano arrived at the jail.
Voice of OC obtained the police report late last month and is publishing a portion of it for the first time in this article.
The Westminster DUI allegations have figured prominently in allegations by at least three Santa Ana police officials that after Serrano was disciplined in 2012 for his conduct in Westminster, he became upset at the police chief who disciplined him, Carlos Rojas and, as head of the police union, allegedly bribed City Council candidates to oust the police chief.
Serrano has broadly disputed the bribery allegations. A longtime sergeant, Serrano in 2016 became president of the police union, which is by far the largest campaign spender on City Council elections in the city. Council members supervise the city manager, who in turn oversees the police chief.
Serrano is widely described as among the most influential people at Santa Ana City Hall and recently led the union’s successful effort to win a $25 million raise for officers.
The District Attorney’s Office, where Serrano’s wife has worked since the 1990s, declined to file charges against him over the Westminster DUI allegations, later citing a lack of evidence while not addressing Serrano’s alleged refusal to submit to the blood and breath tests. Serrano’s wife did not respond Tuesday to requests for comment.
Last year, while running for Garden Grove City Council, Serrano appeared with then-DA Tony Rackauckas in the DA’s re-election campaign ads. Rackauckas ended up losing the election to former county Supervisor Todd Spitzer.
In a 2015 DUI prosecution of the wife of a former Riverside County DA, the state Attorney General’s Office handled the case to avert legal conflicts, according to a news report at the time.
And in Orange County, the Attorney General handled the decision on whether to prosecute the co-host of a Rackauckas fundraiser who drove his car into a protester outside the event.
Rackauckas lost re-election in November to Spitzer, who became district attorney in early January. The month after Spitzer won, the Santa Ana police union contributed a maximum-allowed $2,000 to Spitzer’s election campaign.
Attorney General staff could find no record of the Orange County DA asking if the Serrano DUI case presented a conflict of interest, an AG spokeswoman said Tuesday.
DA officials so far have declined to say if they asked the AG whether the DA had a legal conflict in deciding whether to prosecute a DA employee’s spouse.
“These questions can only be answered by the former District Attorney Tony Rackauckas who oversaw this case,” the Orange County DA’s office, now led by Spitzer, said Tuesday in response to questions about whether a conflict opinion was sought and whether it’s lawful to refuse a blood test after a DUI arrest.
“Under the previous administration no charges were filed and the statute of limitations ran out. This case was rejected by the prior DA and the people responsible are no longer with the office.”
Messages seeking Rackauckas’ comment were referred back to the DA’s office.
“Every retired person contacted that was in senior management in 2011 has no recollection of the incident being brought to his/her attention,” said a statement emailed late Tuesday by Rackauckas’ former chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder.
“It’s a bit puzzling that the DA’s office would refer this issue to the retired District Attorney since the DA’s office is in possession of the files and Senior Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh was the one who provided the information to then-spokesperson Michelle Van Der Linden in the prior Voice of OC article.”
DA representatives, including Baytieh, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment Tuesday evening after Schroeder sent the statement.
Westminster police cited a range of alleged evidence they said supports their findings that Serrano committed DUI, including audio recordings, witness statements, and an official form showing Serrano refused an alcohol blood test when he was in jail.
The department recommended two misdemeanors, for DUI and hit-and-run, and issued Serrano a misdemeanor citation that the DA’s office apparently never filed in court.
The DA’s office, in explaining last fall why it declined to prosecute Serrano, cited the lack of field sobriety and blood tests.
“I can confirm this case was received and rejected due to insufficient evidence,” the DA’s office said in a statement published in early November by OC Weekly, which first published details of the police report.
“A [field sobriety test] was not conducted, and blood was not taken, so there was no evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” the DA spokeswoman said at the time.
The reason there was no blood evidence, according to the police report, was Serrano refused to submit to the test. And a sobriety test was conducted, according to the police report, with an officer in the field saying an eye test called Nystagmus indicated Serrano was under the influence of alcohol.
In California, refusing a blood test after being arrested for DUI is itself against the law and leads to harsher punishment if convicted of DUI.
DA officials, asked this week about the accuracy of the fall 2018 statement about lack of evidence, referred comment to Rackauckas.
Serrano’s internal Santa Ana police discipline in 2012 for the alleged DUI was a major factor in him later taking over the police union and allegedly bribing City Council candidates to fire the police chief, according to lawsuits and deposition testimony by Rojas and other city officials.
“Serrano was justifiably disciplined by former Chief Rojas for this conduct. To this date, Serrano has maintained a grudge against not only Chief Rojas, but against those perceived to be loyal to the former Chief,” states a February lawsuit by former Santa Ana police Sgt. John Franks, who led the police union until Serrano became president in spring 2016, and his wife Laura Franks, who has worked for the Santa Ana Police Department since the 1990s.
Serrano has broadly disputed the lawsuit, saying Franks wants taxpayer money from the city, but has declined to challenge the specific allegations and has not publicly disputed the police report.
Under the union’s contract with the city, Serrano is completely released from his city job duties, while remaining a police sergeant and receiving his full city salary, plus premium pay equivalent to an additional 35 percent of his salary.
‘His Speech Was Slurred’
Westminster police, in their reports, said Serrano fled the scene in October 2011 after he crashed into the back of a car waiting at a red light near Westminster Mall.
Police said their investigation determined he “was driving while impaired by alcohol,” based on Serrano slurring his speech, his breath smelling of alcohol, and his refusal to take breath or blood alcohol tests.
“Serrano’s eyes appeared watery and bloodshot and his speech was slurred,” Westminster Police Officer Paul Walker said in his report.
Walker, in his official report on Serrano’s alleged hit-and-run DUI, said he asked Serrano, after smelling alcohol on his breath and noticing his slurred speech, to perform a common sobriety test in which Serrano would follow the officer’s finger with his eyes.
“His first attempt failed as he moved his head instead of his eyes,” the officer wrote. “His second attempt stopped when he put his hat back on and refused to complete the test. In the few seconds I was watching his eyes, I noticed he had a lack of smooth pursuit as he tracked my finger to his left.”
“The Nystagmus [sobriety test] started almost immediately indicating to me that Serrano had some alcohol in his system. I also noticed that while speaking with him he began to sway in a circular motion and he appeared tired.”
As evidence, the officer wrote there were audio recordings of the interaction, along with additional statements by two Westminster police corporals who the officer said were witnesses.
After being arrested for DUI and brought to jail, Serrano attempted to “chest bump” one of the officers and called him an “asshole” and a “piece of shit,” according to the report, which cites additional audio recording as evidence.
Once in jail, Serrano “attempted to ‘chest bump’ me,” Walker wrote. “Once he was uncuffed and as he passed me in the booking area, he turned suddenly and placed his left hand, balled into a fist with his middle finger extended, approximately ten inches in front of my face and said ‘I’m not threatening you. You’re a piece of shit.’ ”
“I ignored Serrano as I believed it was simply the alcohol that was impairing his judgment,” the officer wrote.
After Serrano refused to take breath and blood tests, police said they called in a nurse to administer a forced blood draw.
“However, based on Serrano’s behavior in the jail, it was determined unsafe for [the nurse] to perform the test,” and the refusal was documented in the case file, the police report states.
DA officials later cited the lack of a blood test in explaining why charges were not filed.
Contact Nick Gerda at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @nicholasgerda.