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2 private investigators can be tried on conspiracy and false imprisonment charges, judge rules

2 private investigators can be tried on conspiracy and false imprisonment charges, judge rules
Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer was the subject of a false drunk driving report submitted in 2012 by former police detective Christopher Joseph Lanzillo, who was working for a law firm hired by a group opposed to Righeimer's reelection. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Two private investigators can be tried on charges of false imprisonment and conspiracy in connection with a fake DUI report against a Costa Mesa city councilman in 2012, an Orange County judge ruled Friday.

Upholding an earlier ruling, Superior Court Judge Michael Leversen agreed that there is enough evidence for private investigators Christopher Lanzillo and Scott Impola to stand trial on charges that they conspired in advance about the false report.

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The report led a police officer to briefly detain Councilman Jim Righeimer.

A magistrate ruled in August that a sobriety test the officer conducted on Righeimer didn't constitute a detention, nullifying some of the prosecution's charges of false imprisonment and conspiracy.

But Superior Court Judge Cheri Pham reversed the magistrate's ruling in December.

Defense attorneys challenged the reversal, but Leversen denied their motion after a brief hearing Friday in Fullerton.

Leversen's decision means Lanzillo and Impola still face felony counts of conspiracy and false imprisonment related to the DUI stop, as well as two more felony counts of conspiracy on allegations that they used GPS devices to illegally track Councilman Steve Mensinger and a lawyer.

Lanzillo and Impola could each face up to four years and four months in prison if convicted, according to the Orange County district attorney's office. The two previously pleaded not guilty to all the accusations and are free on bail.

Prosecutors allege the two were trying to dig up dirt on Mensinger, Righeimer and Councilman Gary Monahan, who were feuding with Costa Mesa's police union before the city's election in 2012.

Authorities believe Lanzillo and Impola were working for the now-defunct law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which represented the Costa Mesa Police Assn. at the time.

Prosecutors allege the association had recently increased the law firm's retainer with instructions to find information that could be damaging to the council members, two of whom — Mensinger and Monahan — were running for reelection.

Neither the police union nor the law firm has been charged with a crime. Prosecutors have granted members of the police association immunity in exchange for their testimony. The association has said it had no prior knowledge of any wrongdoing and that it fired the law firm soon after the DUI stop came to light.

Much of the case against the private investigators is related to the night of Aug. 22, 2012. Prosecutors say Impola and a woman working with him were surveilling Monahan at a restaurant he owns in Costa Mesa.

Prosecutors allege Impola saw Righeimer at the restaurant's bar and contacted Lanzillo, who tailed the councilman when he drove away.

According to testimony at a preliminary hearing, Lanzillo then called 911 to report that Righeimer was swerving in and out of lanes as he drove.

A Costa Mesa police officer arrived at Righeimer's home soon afterward and administered a sobriety test, which Righeimer passed.

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Though Righeimer consented to the test and his contact with the officer lasted less than a minute, the district attorney's office contends the false report caused the officer to detain Righeimer outside his home, justifying the false-imprisonment charge.

Money writes for Times Community News.

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