Officer Wolfe Finally Charged! [update – legal analysis by Diamond]

Today, over a year after the event, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office announced new charges against former Fullerton Police Officer Joe Wolfe.  This brings the total number of individuals charged to three and also means that the first three officers on the scene have all been charged with felony counts.

http://orangecountyda.com/home/index.asp?page=8&recordid=3201&returnurl=index.asp%3Fpage%3D8

I haven’t seen the video in quite some time– with good reason because it’s pretty horrific.  While it will be many more months before the public sees any resolution with these new charges or the original charges against Manuel Ramos and Jay Cincinelli, I am miserably gratified knowing that, finally, Joe Wolfe– the man who first sounded the death knell for Kelly Thomas by delivering the first blow with a club will be brought to answer for his crimes.

I remember the first time I heard about Kelly’s death. I was holding my six month old son.  I was holding him when I saw the photos of Kelly in the hospital; I was holding him when I heard Ron Thomas speak, and I was holding him when I realized just how fragile and temporary my son’s future really is.

I was holding my son and I wept.

I’d like to take a moment and remind those of you who felt it necessary to don a blue “I <3 Fullerton Police” shirt and enjoy a free hamburger a few weeks ago just who exactly paid for that shirt and that burger.

I get why you put on the shirt and ate your free burger.  I really do.  I think for many of you, your heart was in the right place and that you sincerely value the fabric that makes up your community.    I think you want a plan for how we’re all going to move forward for what’s best in our community, that you’re frustrated that the council hasn’t provided a clear path forward that includes what everyone values, and that you have strong feelings about keeping our police department.

I think you wanted to take a stand for unity in your community and fight for something you believe in, but I think you got caught up in the moment and didn’t fully appreciate the moral price of that shirt and that burger.

You shouldn’t have put on that shirt and you should have had a salad.

It’s in really poor taste to wear a shirt and eat a meal that’s paid for by three potential felons.  I don’t <3 them and I don’t want their butchered cow.

For those of you who feel it necessary to keep wearing that shirt, I hear Tide does a great job of getting out blood stains.  Try it and let me know how it goes.  It won’t be the first time that someone has tried to rub out Kelly Thomas’s blood from something that said Fullerton Police on it.

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Legal Analysis by Greg Diamond

FPD's Joe Wolfe

Cry, Wolfe! He’d been charged — but can he be convicted?

Officer Joseph Wolfe was charged today with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.  (He was not charged with murder, despite the graphic you see above.)

While the baton strike is probably the thing that most people will best remember about Wolfe’s involvement in the Kelly Thomas killing that day in early July 2011 — and it likely is the act that led to Wolfe’s indictment — it seems likely that if the charges are not thrown out it will be because of something that either preceded or followed that act.

The biggest problem with the Kelly Thomas hearing is that it seems possible that he was detained by the police on what they knew to be a pretext — or, even worse, on what the police knew was a pretext and had instructed businesses in and around the Fullerton Transportation Plaza to invoke if they ever wanted to get rid of a homeless person.  (The evidence of either is not yet clear.)  If that’s so, then either Wolfe’s actions (in concert with Manuel Ramos) were either approved in advance by the department (in which case they might be held legally responsible, but generally wouldn’t be) or were their own clever scheme — in which event that might be on their own.  If the detention of Kelly Thomas was illegitimate from the start, then actions taken thereafter (such as using a club to knock him down and prevent him from fleeing detention) would also likely be illegitimate.

The other prospect is that what has gotten Wolfe indicted is something that happened in the scrum during which he and Ramos were trying to handcuff Thomas, or later when Jay Cicinelli arrived and started tasering and beating him. If Wolfe and Ramos’s use of their weight to hold down Thomas was beyond what was even plausibly reasonable, it could be the basis for an indictment.  If the charges relate to something that happened after Cicinelli and the last three police arrived, then it could potentially put them in danger of indictment as well — but that seems unlikely.

The reason that the charges probably won’t survive if they are based in the baton blow is that there’s not much argument to be made that when someone has been detained for questioning and turns to walk away, that’s what Wolfe is paid to do: keep them detained.  Had he aimed for Thomas’s head, that would be the basis for an excessive force charge by itself — but he didn’t.  It’s not clear what critics of Wolfe think that the rule should be here: should they have let him run away entirely?  Should they have chased him without first trying to force him down?  (What if he had tun into traffic and hit by a car?)

I think that what critics can fairly say is “if you know that it was a bad bust to begin with, you should let the guy know.”  What I think that they might want to say, though, is: “if this guy is later going to die as a result of what happens next, then don’t take a swing at him.”

That’ won’t fly.  It’s fair to ask cops to follow procedure; it’s not fair to demand that they be precognitive.


About Ryan Cantor

Our conservative columnist, raised in North Orange County, works as an Analyst and Strategic Planner.