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District attorney declines to charge Long Beach councilwoman with drunk driving, domestic violence

Prosecutors have decided not to charge Long Beach Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce with domestic violence or driving under the influence in connection with a June clash with her former chief of staff.

But a district attorney’s memo detailing the decision also raises questions about the Long Beach Police Department’s response to the June 3 incident involving the councilwoman and Devin Cotter.

In its initial statement, the Police Department said it received a call for assistance from the California Highway Patrol about a possible drunk driving incident on the shoulder of the 710 Freeway in Long Beach at 2:40 a.m.

The city’s officers smelled alcohol on Pearce, who admitted to drinking that night, according to the district attorney’s memo. A field sobriety test conducted about 4 a.m. showed she was mildly impaired.

But the memo said a test of the councilwoman’s blood-alcohol level was not conducted until 4:20 a.m., nearly two hours after the CHP called. At that point, the test showed Pearce had a blood-alcohol level of 0.06%, under the legal limit of 0.08%, the memo said.

The testing device used on Pearce was unreliable, the prosecutor’s memo said. A department toxicologist had recommended it not be used a month before the incident. Additional tests were not performed, according to the district attorney’s memo.

A police spokesman said in a statement that officers initially investigated whether domestic violence had occurred when they arrived, interviewing Cotter and Pearce before realizing that the councilwoman had been drinking. At that point, the officers called for a colleague who is a certified drug recognition expert to investigate, Sgt. Brad Johnson said in the statement.

He said the testing device had been “tagged to be replaced but was not removed from its storage cabinet. The officer who retrieved the device did not realize ... and unfortunately used it during the DUI investigation.”

Police at the scene saw Cotter with swelling, redness and a cut to his head and cuts to his hand, according to the district attorney’s memo. Pearce at one point had shoved Cotter, causing him to fall to the ground, the memo said.

Prosecutors ultimately decided that Pearce, who was elected to the City Council in 2016, could argue she was defending herself when she shoved Cotter.

In an email to The Times, Pearce said Cotter had thrown her “keys, iPad, and many other things” off to the side of the road during the argument on the freeway shoulder. Asked about the delay in time between the arrival of responding officers and the administering of a sobriety test, Pearce said she was questioned about the confrontation with Cotter for “some time” while the investigators were “waiting on someone that was bringing the Breathalyzer.”

Cotter, who could not be reached for comment, served as campaign manager for Mayor Robert Garcia when he was elected in 2014 and later served as a legislative deputy to him until July 2016, according to Cotter’s LinkedIn page. He then left to work as Pearce’s chief of staff until February 2017. Pearce and Cotter had “dated before, during and after” the June 3 incident, according to the district attorney’s memo.

The two had been driving back from a concert, where both had been drinking, when the altercation occurred, according to the memo. An argument ensued, and Pearce struck Cotter on the arm because he was “causing the car to dangerously swerve” on the freeway, the memo said.

Both gave “multiple inconsistent statements and thus both have proved to be inaccurate reporters of fact,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Janis Johnson wrote in the memo. But evidence supported the councilwoman’s final version of the events over Cotter’s, Johnson concluded.

Among the evidence was a text message Pearce sent to her new chief of staff asking for help and a video the councilwoman took that showed Cotter yelling a threat to release disparaging information about her to “the press, her husband and her employer if she did not meet certain demands while holding her car keys,” Johnson wrote.

Long Beach police previously said officers did not find “sufficient cause” to arrest either Pearce or Cotter at the scene. Pearce was driven home by a friend, according to police, and Cotter was taken home by the responding officers.

Cotter tried to confront Pearce again hours later outside her home, the councilwoman said. He was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication a short time later, according to police.

In a statement released earlier this year, Pearce said she had been the victim of domestic violence in the months before the incident and that police were investigating, though she did not accuse anyone by name.

“Since late last year I have experienced escalating threats, harassment and stalking,” she wrote.

Pearce said those incidents remain under investigation by Long Beach police, and she declined to elaborate Thursday. She also expressed frustration that she had been cast as the aggressor in the incident.

“I find it frustrating that as the one that called [police], that was trapped, and was faced with fear that I was listed as the only suspect in the matter. This is one example of the challenges for women (and even men) in speaking up about psychological abuse,” Pearce wrote in the email. “The burden of proof is not a bruise on the outside, ones easily seen.”

Pearce has said she was not “pulled over” June 3, but had requested a police presence at the scene. Earlier this year, CHP’s Southern Division Chief Chris O’Quinn told The Times that his officers came upon Pearce and Cotter because they were involved in a “heated argument” on the side of the freeway.

Long Beach officers have closed their investigation into the June 3 incident, according to a statement released Wednesday. The district attorney’s Public Integrity Division is still conducting a separate investigation into “alleged inappropriate activity and conflicts of interest” in connection with the incident. A spokesman for the district attorney’s office declined to elaborate.

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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UPDATES:

Oct. 26, 6:05 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Councilwoman Pearce.

This story was first published at 8:25 p.m. on Oct. 25.

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