Santa Barbara Police Officer Kasi Beutel took the witness stand in court Tuesday, explaining the circumstances under which she arrested freelance investigative reporter Peter Lance last New Years Eve for allegedly driving under the influence. Lance has since written more than 20 front page articles for the News-Press blistering Beutel as an overzealous cop who’s bent and broken the rules — forging signatures, among other things — to wrack up a record number of drunk-driving arrests.
This was Beutel’s first appearance on the witness stand, and those hoping to see lightning and thunder got a display of sunshine and daisies instead. Speaking in an open, cooperative manner, Beutel — who worked exclusively on DUIs for two years — testified Lance’s eyes were “bloodshot and glassy” when she was called by the officers who initially stopped him. He smelled of alcohol, Beutel testified, and he had volunteered that he’d drunk three glasses of champagne that night. According to Beutel, Lance blew a .10 on the breathalyzer test — .08 is the legal limit — and that he performed so poorly on the field sobriety test that she cut it short for fear he might injure himself.
During cross examination by Lance’s attorney Darryl Genis, Beutel denied rigging the breathalyzer test to get a higher reading, and denied using arrest forms on which the field notes had been filled out in advance, as Lance has charged. Likewise, she denied forging his signature. Lance has accused Beutel of falsifying his signature to make it appear he waived his right to a blood alcohol test.
Tuesday’s hearing was only to determine whether police had probable cause to stop Lance in the first place — they claimed he remained stopped at a light after it had turned green for up to six seconds, thereby impeding the car behind him — and whether they had probable cause to arrest him for DUI. Genis was repeatedly rebuffed by Judge Brian Hill in his efforts impeach Beutel’s credibility by providing evidence demonstrating Beutel had lied under oath in other instances, specifically about her first marriage seven years ago. Likewise, prosecuting attorney Sandy Horowitz objected to a majority of Genis’s questions, and in most cases, Hill sided with Horowitz. The matter goes back to Hill next week for further deliberation.
While the case is a simple DUI, it’s become a cause célèbre among normally disparate segments of the community that are inclined — for a wide variety of reasons — to regard the police, the district attorney, the city attorney, and anyone in position of political authority as either tainted or absolutely corrupt. Despite its simplicity, Genis — who dresses with the subtly of a sunspot in full explosion — has proven immeasurably creative in conjuring a multiplicity of sinister-sounding side issues, which in their totality, cast the South Coast’s collective authorities in a very poor light. In action, Genis appears to delight in framing questions in a highly inflammatory fashion. In comparison, “When did you stop beating your wife?” seems almost mild. Genis seems utterly untroubled by the number of objections prosecutor Sandy Horowitz — Vague! Argumentative! Misstates the evidence! Presumes information not in evidence! Irrelevant! — raises. Nor by the large number Judge Hill sustains.
The relentless coverage of this controversy in the pages of the News-Press has taken a decided toll on the police department. With only a few notable exceptions, City Hall and Police Chief Cam Sanchez have opted not to respond, explaining they do not comment on ongoing legal matters and that they don’t comment on personnel matters. In general these exceptions came way late and have been lost in the maelstrom. City Hall insiders have expressed outrage that the News-Press would turn over so much front page real estate to a reporter with such an obvious ax to grind. They, like others in the community, have wondered how the News-Press could assign Lance to cover his own case. To the extent they’ve done anything, they have authorized an independent investigation of Beutel’s conduct by an unnamed outside agency. While it appears that investigation is complete, it remains unclear if and when the results will ever be made public. When it’s over, City Hall’s non-responsive response will no doubt become a textbook study on how not to react.
The Kasi Beutel on the stand was not the Kasi Beutel either of the warring camps have portrayed. She was not the clenched-jawed, withholding scold who makes defense attorneys struggle for admissions of things as obvious and uncontested as the sky being blue. Nor was she the beaten-down victim of a journalistic stalker and character assassination that her defenders have indicated. Instead, she seemed bright, alert, engaged, and doing her best to provide the information requested. She did not get rattled. At times, she’d smile. Mostly, she seemed at ease. If this was just a game face, she put on a good show.
Genis repeatedly pressed Beutel about the apparent differences between Lance’s Trombetta waiver signature and the signature he gave elsewhere on the arrest citation. When asked to explain this, Beutel answered, “I don’t think they’re that different. I don’t know what you want me to explain.” Under questioning from Genis, she repeatedly testified that she saw Lance sign his name on the Trombetta waiver. Lance has stated that as a licensed attorney he would never sign a document he had not first carefully examined, and insists he would never have signed it.
During the evolving court battle, Genis discovered that Beutel had gone out on patrol armed with arrest documents that had certain lines already filled in. Typically, these described weather conditions, but also included information about whether the suspect was a diabetic or taking medication. Department brass has justified this practice, saying it saves officers in the field time. Genis has argued it indicates that Beutel is approaching suspects in the field with too many preconceived notions to be consistent with the “open mind” a law enforcement officer is supposed to exhibit. On the stand, Beutel denied that any of the documents involving Lance had been filled out in advance.
In court, Genis suggested that Beutel marked the box describing Lance as “very unstable” three times to cover up the fact that this box had been pre-marked as Beutel began her evening rounds. No, she replied, “He was very unstable. It was very pronounced, much more so than the blood alcohol level would indicate.”
At one point, Genis sought to make much of the fact that Beutel could not reliably estimate whether the breathalyzer test machine was eight inches, 12 inches, or 15 inches long. When Judge Hill expressed impatience with this line of questioning, Genis replied, “It goes to her credibility and her tendency to exaggerate,” he said. If a person says what’s only eight inches is 12, he suggested, think of how unreliable they are on other more important matters. The judge wasn’t buying it. Likewise, the judge allowed Genis no chance to show that Beutel may or may not have lied under oath on loan documents, lied about her marital status, or may have lied in testimony in other drunk driving cases.
When focusing on the immediate facts of the Lance stop — as opposed to any of the ancillary allegations designed to impeach Beutel’s credibility — Genis sought to make much of the fact that Lance’s voice was not slurred the night of the arrest. At one point, Lance tried to persuade Beutel to let him go, pointing out that as a police officer, she enjoyed broad “prosecutorial discretion.” The fact that Beutel evidenced no difficulty understanding Lance articulate what could be a tongue twister for an otherwise inebriated individual, he suggested, was compelling evidence that Lance was not inebriated.
On the night of his arrest, Lance was initially stopped by officers Bruno Peterson and Heather Clark, both of whom testified as well. They stopped him because they noted he failed to move forward out of the intersection of Santa Barbara and Victoria streets after the light changed from red to green. And there was a car behind him. Lance’s head, they testified, was down, as if he was looking in his lap. Peterson testified he thought Lance may have been in medical distress, texting, or even asleep. He testified that he approached Lance’s car and flashed his light. Lance looked up and then down again, which Peterson thought was odd. All this took at most six seconds, Peterson said.
Genis sought to argue — through his questions — that had Peterson not stopped Lance, perhaps Lance would have moved off the light sooner. “I suppose,” said Peterson. Lance eventually drove forward and was pulled over a block-and-a-half up Santa Barbara Street. In that time, Genis established through questioning both Peterson and Clark, Lance never veered, swerved, changed lanes erratically, lurched, crawled, or violated any rules of the road. And when Lance pulled over, he did so without incident. How was that consistent, Genis asked, with a man so drunk he couldn’t finish his field sobriety test?
Genis grilled Officer Clark about her decision to tape record portions of the arrest — about 15 to 20 seconds’ worth — and then to destroy that tape recording later. She testified she turned on the tape when Lance became “verbally aggressive,” about the same time he was handcuffed. His voice grew louder, she said, and he began commenting about legal troubles Police Chief Cam Sanchez was having with the nursing home where his mother-in-law lived. The nursing home had recently sued Sanchez, his wife, and everyone in her family over unpaid bills relating to care his mother-in-law had received.
Clark stated she destroyed the tape on her own without consulting anyone in the department because she thought it lacked any evidentiary value. How could that be, Genis asked, if it showed that Lance’s voice was not slurred? Wouldn’t that fact be useful evidence? “So you unilaterally decided to destroy evidence in this case?” he asked. Sandy Horowitz, the prosecutor, objected. Hill sustained the objection. “Have you ever destroyed evidence in a DUI investigation before?” he asked. This time, the question stood. “Not that I’m aware of,” stated Clark.
Genis also tried to make much of the fact that Beutel testified at a Department of Motor Vehicle hearing that she thought Clark and Peterson initially stopped Lance because he’d made an illegal turn. Neither Clark nor Peterson ever told Beutel this was the case, and they wondered where she got it. On the witness stand, Beutel said she was not sure, just that she got it, however mistakenly.
For all the considerable smoke Genis sought to conjure, Officer Peterson was un-budgeable on certain key points that will likely prove pivotal in determining whether there was probable cause to stop Lance in the first place and then subsequently arrest him. Peterson testified that when he stopped Lance, he asked Lance if he’d had anything to drink. Lance stated he’d had three glasses of champagne. On the stand, Peterson testified, “His eyes appeared to be watery.” In an exquisite performance of hyper-formalized cop-speak, Peterson testified, “I noticed there was an odor associated with an alcoholic beverage coming from the vehicle.”
The lingo might be weird, but when it comes to establishing probable cause, it sounds pretty solid. But Genis might have been given a slim pretext to attack Peterson’s credibility as a witness. When Horowitz asked Peterson to point out Lance and describe an article of clothing he was wearing, Peterson described Lance’s shirt as being “purple,” when to all eyes it was clearly a shade of red. Peterson, it turns out, is color blind. But of such molehills are mountains made.