Tony Denunzio, who was tazered 13 times and sustained broken ribs in what some witnesses described as a brutal beating at the hands of a Santa Barbara police officer in October 2011, is walking away victorious after a weeklong DUI jury trial.
The 12-member jury — after 12 hours of deliberation — came to an impasse on whether Denunzio was guilty of driving under the influence. They were 8-4 in favor of guilt. A Santa Maria judge declared a mistrial Tuesday afternoon, four days after the judge acquitted Denunzio on a separate charge of driving with a blood-alcohol level above 0.08.
Deputy DA Mai Trieu said afterward that she doesn’t know if her office will pursue a new trial. That decision would be made by Thursday, she said, when both sides are back in front of Judge James Rigali. But Denunzio’s attorney, Darryl Genis, thinks that would be unwise. “This case will never see the light of day again,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty, baby. All the king’s horses are never gonna put this one back together. It’s done.”
The incident caused an uproar in Santa Barbara, not because of Denunzio’s driving but because of his violent arrest, which was partially caught on video. Patrol car footage shows Denunzio getting out of his vehicle in the Gelson’s parking lot on upper State Street after he was followed there by Officer Aaron Tudor. Denunzio can be seen looking back toward Tudor, who quickly jumped out of his cruiser, telling Denunzio, “Stay in your car.” When Denunzio slowly turned his head away from the officer, Tudor came up behind him, grabbed his left arm, and pushed him toward Denunzio’s SUV.
Tudor — then a four-year veteran of the department — performed a leg sweep, and Denunzio fell to the ground. Soon after Tudor started striking Denunzio with his knee and his open palm. (Witnesses described closed-fist punching.) Denunzio then looked to be on his knees with the officer sort of straddling his back, but both of their faces were out of the camera’s view. Tudor could be seen using his Taser in the “drive stun” mode, which reduces its effectiveness. He didn’t deploy the more powerful wires, Chief Cam Sanchez said at a press conference following the incident, because of the close range.
Denunzio, in an audiotape recorded by authorities during his blood draw, was obviously having a hard time breathing, telling the police they “kicked the shit out of my ribs.” He didn’t understand what was happening. “Why the fuck am I being arrested, and why is he beating me up,” Denunzio asked the police. “What did I do?”
In the days following, Police Chief Cam Sanchez came to Tudor’s defense, explaining that sometimes police work isn’t pretty. The DA’s Office interviewed more than a dozen people who witnessed the incident before declining to file resisting arrest charges against Denunzio. No excessive force charges were filed against Tudor. After the publicity that followed the incident, the DA’s Office requested the case be moved to Santa Maria.
In the patrol car video, which began recording near Hendry’s Beach where Tudor started trailing Denunzio, Denunzio can be seen making three lane changes that authorities allege were illegal. The first purported illegal lane change seemed questionable, as Denunzio chose one of two lanes where Las Positas grows from a single-lane highway to two lanes. Without using his blinker, he then maneuvered around a car at a light and then back into the lane once he made the pass.
According to reports, Trieu told the jurors in her closing arguments that while they may not agree with how Tudor handled the traffic stop, their job was to determine if Denunzio was under the influence while driving. “Pay attention and focus on the defendant’s actions, and determine he was not acting like an ordinary, sober person,” Trieu was quoted by the Santa Barbara News-Press as saying. She also noted Denunzio didn’t pull over immediately after Tudor turned on his flashing lights.
Genis described Denunzio’s actions on the road as “driving errors that we ordinary citizens make on a daily basis even though we don’t have any alcohol in our system. People do not drive perfectly even though we don’t have any alcohol in our system.”
The jury was only considering one count this week, as the judge last Friday granted Denunzio’s motion for acquittal on the other charge—driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or higher. On that charge, Genis argued that blood alcohol tests are circumstantial evidence. With circumstantial evidence, if there are two or more reasonable conclusions and one suggests innocence and another guilt, the one pointing to innocence must be accepted.
An expert for the prosecution admitted Denunzio could have had a 0.079 percent blood-alcohol level at the time of driving, Genis said, and the judge sided with him in his argument that it would not be appropriate to extrapolate back to the time Denunzio was driving. Trieu said her office stood by the filing of that charge and that the judge should have allowed the jury to make the decision.
Denunzio isn’t the first person to allege that Tudor used excessive force in an arrest. Britteny Cotledge—also represented by Genis, along with Los Alamitos-based Thomas Beck—filed a federal lawsuit in October, naming Tudor, another officer, the city of Santa Barbara, and Police Chief Cam Sanchez. In the suit Cotledge alleged Tudor and the other officer, Kyle Crooks, “without warning or lawful justification violently grabbed [her] and rammed her against the vehicle breaking plaintiff’s upper right arm.” She also has alleged the hood of the car was hot, and she “pleaded to be taken from the hood and complained of pain to no avail.” The defendants have denied the allegations in that suit.