The criminal trial of a Los Angeles County judge accused of battery for allegedly pushing a woman to the ground during an argument over dog waste took a new twist Tuesday when the prosecutor asked permission to also charge the judge with impersonating a peace officer.
The prosecutor's request came after Superior Court Judge Craig Richman testified that he unsuccessfully tried to calm the woman as she was screaming profanities by telling her that he was a police officer.
Richman, a former supervisor in the district attorney's office who was appointed to the bench in late 2005, admitted under cross-examination that he is not a police officer.
"So you were lying to her?" Deputy City Atty. Joshua M. Geller asked during a tense exchange.
"I was lying to her," Richman responded.
Geller asked whether he would be surprised to learn that impersonating a peace officer is a misdemeanor offense.
"Am I charged with that?" Richman shot back.
After Geller later asked the court to allow him to add the charge, Richman's attorney, James Blatt, accused the prosecutor of "sandbagging the defense."
"It's ethically wrong," Blatt said.
California law makes it a crime for someone to pretend to be a police officer by using "the authorized uniform, insignia, emblem, device, label, certificate, card, or writing, of a peace officer" without authority.
Geller told the court that Richman's testimony was clear that he used "the label" of police officer during the encounter with the alleged victim, Connie F. Romero.
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said such a charge would be unusual in a case in which someone said he claimed to be a police officer to defuse a conflict.
"I have never heard of this charge ... in this context," she said. "We ordinarily use that charge when someone has nefarious purposes and wants to use the power of the city to do harm to another."
The judge overseeing Richman's trial, Christine C. Ewell, said she would decide Wednesday morning whether the city attorney's office could add the proposed charge.
In about three hours of testimony Tuesday, Richman, 55, said he pushed Romero during the July 18 encounter but did so after she had confronted him on his driveway and pushed him first.
Romero suffered several minor injuries, including a cut above her eye. The city attorney's office contends that Romero never pushed Richman and that she was shoved to the ground from behind. If convicted, he faces up to six months in jail.
Richman testified that he stopped his car to politely ask Romero to pick up a bag of animal waste he saw her drop near his Chatsworth home while she was walking three small dogs. Romero, 51, refused his request, saying she planned to return for the bag on her way back during her walk, he said. Richman said he suggested she put the bag on a nearby curb but that she unleashed a stream of profanities at him.
"She was spitting fire," Richman told a Van Nuys courtroom, where supporters as well as lawyers watched from the audience.
Richman testified that Romero threw the bag with dog excrement through the open front passenger window of his car. He said she laughed and told him, "If you want it so badly, here it is."
At one point, the prosecutor asked Richman to demonstrate Romero's motion in throwing the animal waste. Richman rose in the witness box, and showed the jury a side-arm throw with his right arm.
Richman said he drove into his home's garage nearby and that Romero walked onto his driveway. He said he told her she was trespassing, but Romero walked to within six to eight inches of his face.
"And your breath stinks too," she told him, Richman testified.
He said she pushed him, forcing him backward, and then moved up to him again.
"I raised my hands and pushed her to separate her from me and create a safety zone," Richman said. Romero, he said, stumbled and fell.
Romero refused his attempt to help her up and demanded he call an ambulance after the incident, Richman said.
"I responded, 'No. Clean yourself up and get off my property,'" Richman told the court. He said he saw her face was cut and put a towel near her, then walked into his home.
"I thought I was the victim of this incident," Richman testified. "It was obvious to me that she was severely mentally ill."
Geller, the prosecutor, suggested that Romero might have been teasing Richman and solving their dispute when she tossed the bag of excrement into his car. Richman said he did not view her actions that way.
Geller suggested that Richman was upset because Romero wouldn't do what he wanted and questioned why Richman didn't avoid a confrontation with Romero by, for example, continuing to drive his car around the block. Richman said he regretted not doing so.