Officer cleared after holding black CHP veteran at gunpoint
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Copyright 2006 The Chronicle Publishing Co.
A federal court jury cleared Pleasant Hill police of racism Thursday for holding a plainclothes African American California Highway Patrol officer at gunpoint and handcuffing him because they thought he was trying to rob a video store.
After a three-day trial, the eight-member jury in San Francisco took barely an hour to reach a unanimous verdict that a white police officer and the city of Pleasant Hill did not violate CHP Officer Sam Morgan's civil rights during the December 2003 incident.
Morgan, a 24-year CHP veteran, said he and his partner, a Latino, were serving a tax warrant at the store that evening and were counting money and checks from the cash register when someone called the police.
After speaking by telephone to the store manager, Officers Steve Dexheimer and Drew Sanchez entered with their guns drawn. The CHP officers identified themselves, and Morgan's partner pointed to his CHP badge, but Dexheimer and Sanchez ordered them to lie face down, handcuffed and searched them, and took their guns and identification papers.
They were released after about 10 minutes when their identities were confirmed. At that point, Morgan testified, Dexheimer told him, "This town is lily white. You guys are two minorities. What did you expect us to do?''
Dexheimer, in his testimony, agreed that he made the "lily white'' comment, but denied referring to the CHP officers' minority status. He said he was simply explaining why the misunderstanding had occurred. But a lawyer for Morgan told the jury in closing arguments Wednesday that the comment revealed the officer's motives.
"If they were white, they wouldn't have been treated that way,'' said attorney Julia Sherwin. She said it should have been clear that the CHP officers were not robbers -- the money and the tax warrant were arranged on a counter, employees were free to come and go, and the manager never told the city police officers by phone that the men in the store were suspicious or threatening.
Paul Fitzgerald, lawyer for Dexheimer and the city, said the officer had ample grounds for suspicion -- the two men wore no uniforms, their car was unmarked, the hour was late, and the money was out of the till. He noted that U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer had ruled that the police did not use excessive force, and that Morgan's partner had decided not to sue after concluding that Dexheimer was not racially motivated.
"My clients feel very badly that this happened,'' Fitzgerald told the jury. But he said Morgan was actually responsible for the incident, by deciding to serve the warrant in plain clothes, and now "wants to blame someone else.''
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