The District Attorney’s Office will not file excessive force or resisting arrest charges related to the incident between Santa Barbara Police Officer Aaron Tudor and DUI suspect Tony Denunzio in the Loreto Plaza parking lot on October 21. While some witnesses said Tudor used excessive force in apprehending Denunzio, Chief Cam Sanchez came out in support of Tudor’s actions, explaining he believes appropriate actions were taken, and that sometimes police work isn’t pretty.
Denunzio, who has two prior alcohol-related driving convictions, was pulled over by Tudor after allegedly changing lanes three times along Las Positas Road without signaling. Denunzio told The Independent he had only one drink at the Boathouse restaurant that night, but his attorney and the DA’s office confirmed Tuesday that a blood sample taken right after the incident showed Denunzio’s blood alcohol content was .09 percent. His attorney, Darryl Genis, questioned the manner in which Denunzio’s blood was drawn, however, and plans to mount a legal attack challenging the sample. Genis is also having his own lab test a sample of Denunzio’s blood drawn at County Jail prior to his client being taken to the hospital.
In the meantime, Denunzio will be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a blood alcohol level above .08 percent, and driving on a suspended driver’s license. He will also face allegations of two prior alcohol-related driving convictions.
During the incident, according to witnesses, Tudor — an officer since June 2007 and a member of the department’s drinking and driving team — struck Denunzio with closed fists and kneed him in the ribs, even though Denunzio didn’t appear to be resisting. A police spokesperson said Tudor’s Taser was activated 13 times during the encounter, though it isn’t clear how many times it made contact with Denunzio.
Denunzio, during an interview four days after the incident, showed signs of the encounter — his face was still bruised, his eye red, and his breathing labored from broken ribs. “Why is this being done?” witness Ellen Hunter said Denunzio yelled during the arrest. “Why are you doing this?” Hunter said her husband eventually told her to call 9-1-1 to get Denunzio help. “A police officer is beating up a driver for no reason, and we need help,” she recalled telling dispatch.
Chief Sanchez, in a statement released the week following the altercation, defended Tudor, saying Denunzio wasn’t complying with verbal orders, and that Tudor used palm and knee strikes to gain control over his arrestee. “All of the decisions made and options exercised by the arresting officer that were captured on the video recording were justified standard law enforcement practices given Mr. Denunzio’s resistance,” Sanchez said.
The footage captured by a new dash-cam in Tudor’s patrol car showed parts of the incident. In addition to that video, the DA’s office viewed two other videos as well — one from Gelson’s Market and one taken by a witness. Wednesday, The Independent renewed a public records act request to view these videos.
The DA’s office said there were two divergent views regarding the force utilized by Tudor. “They are both reasonable assessments of the arrest procedure in this case,” it said. In all, there were 13 witnesses who saw all or some of the incident between Tudor and Denunzio. None of those 13 people are police officers. Some characterized Tudor’s actions as appropriate, some did not. “There were some witnesses who saw more, there were witnesses who saw less,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Hilary Dozer said. “There were those who characterized Mr. Denunzio as resisting arrest and not complying with the officer. There were witnesses who felt the officer was not acting in a way consistent with professional police behavior.”
With divergent views among the people who saw what happened, and a standard of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt, officials determined that filing charges relating to the altercation was not appropriate.
Tuesday morning, with his significant other sitting in the front row of the courtroom in support, Denunzio pleaded not guilty to a separate charge of domestic battery, stemming from an incident alleged to have taken place prior to Denunzio’s DUI arrest.
With his alleged victim prepared to tell Judge Jim Herman there was no reason for an order banning contact between the two, the judge decided a more substantive hearing was needed, and pushed the matter out. In the meantime, the judge opted to forgo a no contact order, but instead told Denunzio he could not molest, annoy, threaten, or harass the woman. “That’s not a problem, because he’s not going to do that anyway,” Genis said. A December 6 hearing was scheduled to address the order.
Details on the allegation are slim because it is a domestic violence charge. Genis said police were summoned because there was an argument of some sorts, and Denunzio ended up leaving before authorities arrived. He didn’t hit the woman and he didn’t break anything, Genis said. When authorities did arrive, his significant other told them nothing really happened.
After the hearing, Genis repeated a mantra he had stated earlier, saying he believes the charge is designed to drum up the idea that Denunzio is a violent man and was resisting arrest the night of the alleged DUI and subsequent altercation with the police officer. Dozer said he wouldn’t comment on that claim, though he told The Independent a few weeks ago that “if I was a defense lawyer, that’s the kind of spin I’d put out for my client.”