A former sheriff’s deputy who admitted on-the-job misconduct with 16 women was sentenced Tuesday to three years and eight months in jail, plus 16 months under supervision in the community, for behavior a judge described as “abhorrent.”
Richard Timothy Fischer, 33, pleaded guilty in September to seven criminal counts — none of them specifically charged as sex crimes, though sexual misconduct was at the core of several allegations. Under that deal, he faced up to five years in custody.
That’s technically what he received because of California’s public safety realignment law, which allows some nonviolent offenders to serve part of their sentence locally, in county jail rather than state prison, and part of the term on mandatory supervision.
Fischer was taken into custody at the end of the hearing in the Vista courthouse. He must serve 22 months in jail before he is eligible for release.
Superior Court Judge Daniel Goldstein said he needed to send a message that “those who take advantage of a position of power cannot wield that power to have a reduced sentence.”
“Unfortunately, you disgraced your uniform. ... And I don’t know if you get it. I can’t imagine what you were thinking,” Goldstein said. “It was just conduct that was abhorrent to the appropriate behavior of a law enforcement official.”
In court before the judge issued his sentence, Fischer’s attorney, Gretchen von Helms, said her client was “truly remorseful and sorry for his conduct.”
After hearing from attorneys on both sides of the case, Goldstein chose not to order Fischer to register as a sex offender. At the hearing, prosecutors said they would not ask for that requirement, and three psychologists who evaluated him did not find it warranted. According to the attorneys, most of the victims did not want Fischer to have to register.
In September, on what was to be the first day of his trial, Fischer pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor counts of assault and battery by an officer, as well as one count of false imprisonment.
Several women who came forward said Fischer had fondled, hugged or tried to kiss them after he encountered them while on the job between 2015 and 2017 in North County and East County.
The circumstances of the encounters varied. Some women said the misconduct happened while they were detained or in custody. Some said Fischer had been among deputies who responded to calls for assistance, and that Fischer would show up hours or days later asking for hugs. Some said they agreed to the hugs, but then were groped.
Whether the women consented to the hugs didn’t matter, Goldstein said. “Even if one of the women said, ‘OK, you can hug me,’ when you are in uniform, when you have a gun on, when you have that type of authority, there never can be consent.”
The judge told Fischer that the seriousness of his offenses was not because he hugged someone or was “overzealously trying to help people in need.” Instead, the judge said, it was that Fischer “acted under the color of law in a uniform” and took advantage of people who were particularly vulnerable.
“You took advantage of victims; you took advantage of your position,” Goldstein said, adding that the defendant seemed to believe he would never get caught.
“You operated like that because you thought nobody would believe them,” the judge said.
He said Fischer’s actions could have a chilling effect on other women who may need to call law enforcement for help.
Before the plea deal, Fischer had faced 20 charges involving 16 accusers. Most of the charges involved allegations of assault and battery under the color of authority, but there was one allegation that he forced a woman to perform a sex act.
As part of the deal, prosecutors dismissed that criminal complaint — including the alleged sexual assault — and filed a new one that had just seven charges, but named all 16 women as victims. None of the seven charges alleged a sex crime.
After the sentencing hearing, Von Helms said her client admitted to hugging and embracing women while on duty, behavior he now understands was inappropriate.
The judge heard statements from two victims during the hearing. One said Fischer had groped her, while her hands were restrained, after a traffic stop on a rural road. She said it was difficult “to wrap my brain around what was happening.”
The other woman had her statement read by Elliott Jung, the attorney representing her in a civil suit against the county. In her statement, she referred to the night of her drug-possession arrest by Fischer during a traffic stop.
The woman recounted the “shock, disgust, insecurity and utter vulnerability I encountered as I stood there in handcuffs” as Fischer searched her body. She wrote of the “nervous sickness I felt in my stomach” as she felt him pressed against her, and how later, on the way to jail, he stopped the car on a dark road and asked if she was scared.
She said in the statement that she feared she would be raped, and that she felt relieved when they reached the jail. “For the first time in my life,” the victim wrote, “I was praying to go to jail.”
In court testimony during preliminary hearings last year, the accusers gave similar descriptions of Fischer’s behavior, saying he fondled them during hugs he initiated.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Annette Irving said six of the victims had first encountered Fischer after 911 calls for help. In five of those instances, she said Tuesday, Fischer later returned to the homes, uninvited and “without lawful, legitimate purpose.”
The prosecutor said that in eight other encounters, Fischer “targeted women he had detained and/or arrested.” Some were in handcuffs, she said, when he touched their breasts or buttocks.
“None of the women felt they had any choice in the matter but to submit and acquiesce to Fischer’s authority,” Irving said, later adding that Fischer was “banking on the notion that these victims would never tell.”
After the complaints came to light, Fischer, a Marine reservist who had once been deployed to Afghanistan, was initially put on desk duty, then on unpaid administrative leave. In February, the department said he was no longer an employee.
Fischer had long denied the accusations. He did not make a statement in court Tuesday. Instead, his attorney referred to a letter in which Fischer said he “wanted to express remorse for my conduct toward each person I offended.”
Von Helms said her client wrote that, after court rulings and listening to the testimony at the preliminary hearings, “I understood how people have been intimidated in responding to me based on me wearing a badge.” He said he accepted responsibility for his conduct.
She said Fischer understands that he can no longer serve as a law enforcement officer — “He lost the career of his dreams,” she said — and also noted that he had started counseling and had done volunteer work.
“He has not taken this lightly,” Von Helms said. “He has begun the process of change.”
The sentencing capped the criminal case. But there are also civil cases: All of the victims have sued Fischer and the county. Last year, the county settled four of the claims for a total of about $900,000. The remainder of the cases have been on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.
Figueroa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.