A former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy best known for his role in the 2006 arrest of actor Mel Gibson for drunk driving did not deserve to be fired two years ago and should be given his job back, a county hearing officer has found.
The hearing officer concluded that the Sheriff’s Department was wrong when it accused Deputy James Mee of violating the agency’s policies by pursuing a drunk driver who crashed into a Santa Clarita gas station and of lying about the incident afterward.
Following a lengthy appeal by Mee, Herbert Steinberg concluded the deputy did not pursue the drunk driver and did not lie in department interviews about the June 17, 2011, crash or in his own reports about the incident.
Steinberg's findings come after testimony from multiple deputies and supervisors, and mark a significant victory for Mee, who contends he was the victim of retaliation following his 2006 arrest of Gibson.
Mee’s lawyers argue that sheriff’s managers falsely blamed him for leaking details of the arrest and Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade to celebrity news site TMZ.com. Mee, his attorneys allege, was repeatedly subjected to harassment and unfair discipline in the years that followed, culminating in his firing over the 2011 crash.
"They did it for corrupt reasons," said attorney Richard A. Shinee. "And while the hearing officer did not capture that, he came out with the right decision for the right reasons."
The Sheriff's Department insists that Mee's termination had nothing to do with Gibson's arrest. Mee, the department has alleged, violated the agency's rules on pursuits during the Santa Clarita traffic incident, which resulted in serious injuries to the car's driver and passenger. The agency has accused Mee of failing to warn dispatchers and other deputies about how serious the fiery crash was and then lying in his report and to investigators by saying that he had not been in pursuit of the car.
Capt. Shaun Mathers, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department, said the agency is "disappointed with the decision" but respects that the Civil Service Commission has the final say on employee terminations.
Steinberg’s recommendations now go to the commission, which must decide whether to reverse or uphold Mee’s firing. The hearing officer’s 30-page decision, dated Nov. 13, did not address Mee’s allegations of retaliation or mention Gibson’s arrest, but he rejected the department’s arguments about the Santa Clarita incident.
Mee had been following the suspected drunk driver's Nissan sports car and tried to stop the vehicle shortly before the fiery collision. Steinberg noted that the only independent witness, a passenger in the Nissan, testified she saw that the red lights of Mee’s patrol vehicle were on when he tried to pull the sports car over and then were off as the car she was inside fled at a high speed.
Steinberg noted that the Nissan reached speeds as high as 147 mph while Mee’s cruiser was traveling no more than 88 mph.
"In the event that there was a pursuit, common sense would dictate that the pursuer would [at] least be maintaining the same speed or greater than the vehicle that he is pursuing," Steinberg wrote.
Mee did not pursue the Nissan and, as a result, did not lie about it afterward, Steinberg concluded.
Mee testified that he followed the car out of concern that the driver would head for the Antelope Valley Freeway nearby and crash.
Steinberg also rejected the department’s contention that Mee failed to properly respond to the dangers posed by the crash. "Deputy Mee called for backup, Fire Department and paramedics, which is exactly what was required," Steinberg wrote.