In October 2010, four Fresno, California police officers were indicted by the Department of Justice in U. S. District Court in California for federal civil rights, misprision of a felony, and obstruction of justice charges stemming from the arrest of a violent subject five years before. Shortly after the indictment, three of the officers and their legal counsel requested assistance from the Fresno Police Officers Association and others in supporting their defense financially. The requests were declined in light of the anticipated substantial costs as well as other factors. The officers turned to the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund to help.
In the early morning hours of October 10, 2005, the four officers and others responded to a call involving a man breaking into an apartment and assaulting a woman in the presence of her children, who were trying to hide in a closet. When officers arrived, they encountered a completely non-compliant Rolando Celdon in flight from the scene and trying to elude police by climbing over a six foot fence. A police K-9 was released. Celdon fought the dog, pulling him over a fence and requiring the dog’s handler to punch Celdon, injuring himself in the process. The same officer had already “tased” Celdon, with no effect. Additional officers arriving at the melee found Celdon ignoring police commands to show his hands and submit to arrest, moving about in a way that posed additional threats to police. In response, an officer used “less lethal” force, beanbags fired from a shotgun to gain Celdon’s compliance.
In the wake of the arrest, a fellow officer raised concerns about the degree of force used to arrest Celdon and an internal investigation of the events followed. The department fired all four officers but three appealed the terminations and were reinstated. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice saw things differently, leading to the indictment of all four officers in 2010.
The Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund’s board of directors reviewed the case closely and opted to support the accused officers, believing any reasonable law enforcement officer put in the dangerous situation faced by an aggressive, unrelenting felon would act similarly, if not with greater force. The Fresno case typifies risks faced by our law enforcement professionals every day and night—encounters with violent, hyper-aggressive subjects whose intentions must be assessed in seconds, hopefully with the right result.
In January 2013 the officers faced a federal trial. A few weeks later, with a divided jury voting 9-3 in favor of not guilty verdicts on all charges, the case was declared a mistrial. Unfortunately, the prosecutors were determined to proceed, despite the mistrial, and went to trial a second time. Finally, on Feb. 12, 2014, over eight years after the alleged use of excessive force in a violent encounter with a suspected felon, all officers were exonerated. The federal jury unanimously acquitted three of the officers and the case against the fourth resulted in a hung jury, with 11 of the 12 jurors voting for acquittal.