LOS ANGELES – Two ex-Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were sentenced Monday to federal prison for falsifying reports documenting the beating of a handcuffed, mentally ill jail inmate.
Joey Aguiar must serve 18 months behind bars and Mariano Ramirez was handed a 13-month term for lying about the 2009 beating of then-inmate Bret Phillips.
Both men must also serve three years of supervised release, including 100 hours of community service, and surrender to a prison facility on Aug. 1.
Aguiar and Ramirez were found guilty in February of the obstruction of justice charge, but jurors deadlocked on whether the deputies used excessive force. The ex-lawmen were acquitted of conspiring to violate Phillips’ civil rights.
“They lied about what happened because it was excessive, it was brutal,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams told the court.
Aguiar and Ramirez were charged in a four-count indictment with kicking the handcuffed Phillips in the head and upper body, striking him with a flashlight, pepper-spraying him in the face and then hiding their actions in reports.
The Feb. 11, 2009, encounter at the Men’s Central Jail was witnessed by a jail chaplain and an inmate, both of whom testified during the 10-day trial in downtown Los Angeles.
According to the sheriff’s department, both men were relieved of duty in February of 2014, but they are still with the department, pending the completion of an internal investigation.
Defense attorneys argued for probationary sentences, but U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell said that incarceration was necessary because the defendants held “positions of trust with the public” and the false reports could have caused Phillips to be falsely prosecuted for a felony assault charge.
The judge said that while jails can be dangerous places for both inmates and guards, “we, the people” trust law enforcement officers to “safeguard prisoners” and tell the truth in official filings.
Prosecution witnesses testified that the jail guards set upon Phillips in a gang-style beat-down as retribution for showing disrespect earlier in the day. Defense lawyers countered that Phillips was combative and threatening, and the deputies did only what was legally required to gain control of an unruly inmate.
But jurors could not agree if the defendants used excessive force in the encounter, with 10 panelists voting to convict on that count.
Evan A. Jenness, Aguiar’s attorney, said her client — who turned 29 today — was a rookie jail guard when the incident took place seven years ago and had suffered consequences enough without having to go to prison.
“The conviction is an extraordinary punishment,” Jenness said, adding that Aguiar now has limited employment prospects, had forfeited 20 percent of his sheriff’s pension and faces a lawsuit brought by attorney Gloria Allred on behalf of Phillips.
The judge said she had struggled with the appropriate punishment in the case.
“You were a relatively young man,” O’Connell said to Aguiar. “I just don’t know where the wheels went off.”
Referring to the underlying brutality charge, the judge said she believed the force used against Phillips was “excessive” and a 1 1/2-year federal prison sentence for Aguiar was appropriate.
Ramirez’s attorney, Vicki Podberesky, said her client was a man of integrity who had risen from difficult circumstances to become a deputy who coached needy children and supported his family — and did not deserve to be incarcerated.
As relatives wept, Ramirez pleaded with the court not to send him away.
“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about the events,” the former lawman said. “I feel I have let many people down. I hope that you will allow me some leniency.”
However, O’Connell said “the public expects more” from its police, and that the force used by Ramirez against Phillips was excessive.
“Our whole system relies on the fact that police officers swear to uphold the law,” the judge said in sentencing Ramirez to a year and a month behind bars.
O’Connell told defense attorneys that she would recommend a prison “camp” facility for the defendants and would allow the men to choose how to fulfill their requirement of 100 hours of community service each.
Aguiar and Ramirez were among 21 current and former sheriff’s officials to be tried by federal authorities in connection with the FBI’s multi-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the sheriff’s department.
The probe reached the sheriff’s department’s highest offices. Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty in February to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting a hearing in which a federal judge will consider signing off on a plea deal that would result in a prison sentence of no more than six months.
Baca’s former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. The former undersheriff’s sentencing is set for June 20.
O’Connell said she was “troubled” by the government’s disparity in sentencing recommendations that could lead to Baca receiving relatively little time behind bars, if any.
The nearly two-hour hearing Monday began with O’Connell blasting prosecutors for the “hubris” of filing pre-sentencing papers past deadline, prompting apologies from Williams.
“I am appalled at how your office operates,” the judge said. “Apologies only get you so far.”
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