Allegations of misconduct against a Santa Barbara police officer are making big splashes in what would normally be a standard DUI case. Citing publicity that may have influenced potential jurors, Judge George C. Eskin declared a mistrial Thursday in the case of Jonathan Batalas, who is charged with driving under the influence of marijuana. Arrested by Officer Kasi Beutel on November 27, 2010, Batalas has seen his case become the object of media and legal scrutiny after The Santa Barbara News-Press ran a five-part exposé written by freelance journalist Peter Lance, who attempted to cast doubt on Beutel’s credibility. “If it is true that Officer Beutel has a credibility problem, that’s of interest in any case, whether it’s been adjudicated already or not,” said Batalas’s defense attorney, William Makler.
Beutel’s conduct was first called into question when Lance — arrested by Beutel in an alleged alcohol-related DUI on New Year’s Day 2011 — accused her of perjury, fraud, and misconduct in pursuing her DUI arrests, including his own. And so when 25-year-old Batalas began pretrial hearings in the midst of Lance’s series, the limelight immediately shifted to Beutel. Over the course of several days last week, an original jury pool of 57 was reduced to six people after jurors were dismissed for hardship, conflict of interest, or exposure to pretrial publicity. After some deliberation as the pool shrunk, Eskin let go all jurors who had read, discussed, or heard about the series, before scrapping the whole trial.
Makler initially filed a motion to suppress Beutel’s testimony, arguing that she lacked probable cause in stopping Batalas on the night of his arrest. The motion was eventually withdrawn, but not before a pretrial suppression hearing was held to determine whether Beutel’s testimony should be admissible. During the hearing, Eskin permitted Makler to engage in “limited inquiry” into Beutel’s possible misconduct, including allegations about her arrest procedures that had been raised in Lance’s feature.
According to Makler, Beutel’s purported lie was “calculated to make money” from homestead exemptions that Beutel claimed while filing for bankruptcy.
In his cross-examination of Beutel, Makler focused on the accusation that she committed perjury in her 2005 divorce petition from now ex-husband Todd Beutel by stating that the couple’s marriage on May 31, 1997, had taken place a year and a half later, on January 15, 1999. According to Makler, Beutel’s purported lie was “calculated to make money” from homestead exemptions that Beutel claimed while filing for bankruptcy. Makler’s questions were met with a chorus of objections from prosecuting Deputy District Attorney Sanford Horowitz, who argued that Makler’s questions were “irrelevant” to the Batalas case. Beutel consistently dodged Makler’s questions, only conceding that she and Todd Beutel had held a “commitment ceremony” on May 31, 1997. She also repeatedly consulted with Charles Goldwasser, her Los Angeles attorney, during the hearing.
Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss explained this week that the court will reconvene on July 14 to decide how to continue with the trial. A date may be set for it to begin anew in Santa Barbara after publicity surrounding the News-Press series has died down, Auchincloss said, or the trial may undergo a change of venue. The delayed date will allow “more time to examine the revelations in the articles,” Makler said. Police Chief Cam Sanchez, whose department issued a statement in the articles’ wake denouncing them as “one-sided” and “seriously flawed,” declined to comment for this story.
Makler emphasized that the issue of Beutel’s integrity is crucial in ensuring a fair trial for Batalas. “I am not out to destroy the career of this officer, but we have a special obligation to our clients that there are no outstanding issues of credibility left unaddressed,” he said, adding that any defense attorney who did not investigate allegations against a witness’s trustworthiness would be guilty of malpractice. Makler said he verified Lance’s research by searching public records, where he examined Beutel’s marriage certificate and other personal documents