Two Los Angeles police officers, who reportedly had been given joking instructions by a judge to bring a public defender before him in pieces, allegedly dragged the protesting attorney out of a hearing before another judge Monday and hurled him through a courtroom door, bruising his leg.
The incident in Van Nuys Superior Court sparked an immediate hearing by the second judge into the possibility of bringing contempt of court charges against the officers. The hearing drew a large delegation of angry officials from the public defender's office.
Head Van Nuys Deputy Public Defender William Weiss termed the incident "an outrage. A public defender--an attorney at law--is standing before a courtroom doing his job and two Los Angeles police officers drag him out and physically throw him through a door in full view of an entire courtroom of people.
"That's not the way the judicial system is supposed to function."
Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Alan B. Haber convened a hearing to determine whether Officers Nicholas Titiriga and Gregory Baltad were in contempt of court when they forcibly removed Deputy Public Defender Howard Waco from Haber's courtroom.
The incident occurred after Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Raymond T. Mireles asked the officers to bring Waco to his courtroom, according to several witnesses who testified at the contempt hearing.
Two witnesses said the judge jokingly asked the officers to "bring me a piece" or "body part" of Waco.
As shocked courtroom personnel and spectators looked on, the two officers grabbed Waco and pulled him from Haber's courtroom, where Waco was representing a client on a routine procedural matter.
The officers dragged the protesting deputy defender, still clutching his legal files, backward down the hall and into Mireles' courtroom. The officers pushed Waco into the courtroom, causing a deputy district attorney to scramble out of the way and Waco to suffer a bruised leg, witnesses testified at the hearing.
"I'm outraged at what occurred," Haber said as he began the contempt hearing a few hours later in a courtroom crowded with judges, deputy public defenders and high-ranking officials of the public defender's office. "I've never witnessed anything like it in all the years I've been an attorney or on the bench, and I've never heard of anything like it before.
"Frankly, the conduct is outrageous and I want to make sure it never happens again in my courtroom or in any other courtroom," Haber said.
After testimony from several witnesses, the contempt hearing was continued until Nov. 17 to give Mireles time to consult the Los Angeles County counsel's office and to give the officers time to discuss the incident with a lawyer from the city attorney's office.
The officers, assigned to the Police Department's elite, roaming Metropolitan Division, were in Mireles' court to testify against a man accused of a parole violation on a drug charge, witnesses said. Waco was serving as the man's public defender.
The episode prompted immediate protests to Mireles, Haber and Van Nuys Superior Court Presiding Judge Richard G. Kolostian by what Assistant Public Defender David Meyer called "the entire administrative hierarchy of the public defender's office."
"We came to express concern about the safety and physical well-being of one of our personnel," he said. "We said we were very, very concerned about an officer of the court being physically abused while going about his duties in the courthouse."
Mireles refused to comment on the incident but Michael P. Judge, chief of the public defender's central division, said Mireles told officials from his office that he thought Waco was in the hallway outside his courtroom when he told the officers to summon him. Mireles said he did not intend for them to touch Waco, let alone forcibly remove him from another courtroom, Judge said.
Waco was treated by a doctor before limping into the contempt hearing. "It's an indignity to the whole court system," said Waco, who has served 24 years with the public defender's office. He showed Haber the bruise on his leg, which the judge described to the hearing as "the size of a healthy orange."
Waco testified that he came to Mireles' court at about 9 a.m. and was told by Bailiff Andy Romanisky that his client had missed the jail bus. Mireles was not on the bench, Waco said, but the bailiff told him to return to court at 1:30 p.m. when the client would probably be in court.
A few minutes later, Waco said, the two officers approached him as he stood in the hallway. The officers said Mireles had ordered Waco to go into his court, Waco said. Waco said he told the officers there was no need for him to go to court since his client was not there and he needed to take care of another matter rapidly in Haber's court where the judge was eager to proceed with another case, a death penalty trial.
A short time later, Waco said, he was in Haber's court when the two police officers "grabbed me under each arm, held my arms so I couldn't move and said, 'You're ordered back to Judge Mireles' court.' "
Waco said the officers dragged him to Mireles' courtroom and "slammed me against the inner door and I almost fell down."
Waco's story was supported by Deputy Public Defender Thom Tibor, who said Waco was "manhandled by the police officers. I saw Mr. Waco quite literally airborne."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lea Purwin D'Agostino, who was assigned to Haber's court, testified at the hearing that the judge wanted Waco in the courtroom so he could determine whether all parties could be present for the case at 1:30 p.m.
Another deputy district attorney who was present, Eduards R. Abele, testified that Mireles said "something to the effect of 'Bring him in here' " and jokingly added to the officers, "Bring me a piece of him or bring me a body part."
Court reporter Ronald Dahl testified: "I remember him saying jokingly 'Bring in one of his body parts.' "
A police spokesman, Cmdr. William Booth, said the department has not opened an administrative investigation and will "wait until all the smoke clears."
Mireles, a former deputy district attorney, was appointed a Municipal Court judge by Gov. George Deukmejian in January, 1986, and later elevated to the Superior Court.