An Orange County police beating from the past resurfaces amid present turmoil
An O.C. sheriff’s deputy was caught on video repeatedly punching Mohamed Sayem, a Black man, in 2018.
It was a police beating that began like so many others: Early one morning in August 2018, Mohamed Sayem, a Black man, was asleep in his car when Orange County sheriff’s deputies approached.
When it was over, Sayem was bloodied and splayed on the pavement of a parking lot in Stanton. In his report on the encounter, Deputy Michael Devitt wrote he had forcibly subdued Sayem because the man tried to grab him during the arrest. Sayem was charged with resisting arrest — a felony.
The incident garnered little attention until months later, when Sayem’s attorney, Asst. O.C. Public Defender Scott Sanders, released video footage of the beating. In it, Devitt is seen punching Sayem in the face several times before taking him to the ground.
What it did not appear to show was Sayem trying to grab the deputy.
The video set off angry, but fleeting accusations of abuse and deception by the deputies that foreshadowed the upheaval over unjust police killings of Black men and women roiling the country today.
Now, amid the ongoing reckoning over policing, Sayem’s case has taken on new urgency as activists in the county have taken up the case and Sanders again has gone public in recent weeks, this time with claims that the deputies involved in Sayem’s arrest have been the subjects of multiple criminal and internal investigations in past years.
The revelations appear to have made an impact. After years spent pursuing the case, the O.C. District Attorney’s Office abruptly dropped the felony charge against Sayem in a court hearing last week. Sayem still faces a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest and another for public intoxication.
The push to exonerate Sayem is the latest skirmish in years of battles that Sanders has waged on the O.C. Sheriff’s Department. Most notably, in 2014 he uncovered what he said was an illicit jailhouse informant program that deputies used to gather incriminating statements from inmates.
In Sayem’s case, Sanders discovered Devitt, the deputy who delivered the blows, is currently the subject of a criminal investigation in an unrelated case. After he revealed that investigation in a court filing this summer, the Sheriff’s Department acknowledged Devitt has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the inquiry.
Sanders learned of the criminal investigation into Devitt as part of his ongoing push to unearth information about the deputies involved in Sayem’s case from the Sheriff’s Department and D.A.'s office. He declined to discuss the allegations against Devitt, citing a protective order issued by the judge.
Others involved in Sayem’s arrest have tainted records as well, according to Sanders.
“I could not imagine a more infected group of officers at the scene,” Sanders said earlier this month.
The Sheriff’s Department declined to make any of the officers involved in the arrest available for interviews.
Two deputies who went to the parking lot to assist Devitt, Blake Blaney and Brant Lewis, are also currently the subjects of criminal investigations in other cases and have been tied to major scandals that have hit the department in recent years, Sanders said.
Blaney was one of several deputies to be accused of improperly listening in on phone calls that jail inmates made to their attorneys in 2015, Sanders said in his court filings.
Lewis, meanwhile, allegedly was one of several deputies a department probe in 2018 found had routinely mishandled evidence, according to Sander’s court filings. On several occasions Lewis was slow to place evidence from cases into the department’s secure storage facilities, once taking nearly eight months to do so, Sanders said.
In nine other arrests, Lewis never turned in evidence he claimed to have seized, according to Sanders, who also alleged Lewis was accused of filing dozens of false reports in relation to mishandled evidence.
Sgt. Christopher Hibbs, the supervisor at Sayem’s arrest, was prosecuted a decade ago for allegedly using a Taser on a suspect who was already detained in the back of a patrol car, the documents filed by Sanders show. A split jury was unable to reach a decision in Hibbs’ case and the D.A. declined to retry the case, according to the filings.
Sanders has placed the credibility of the deputies and Hibbs at the center of Sayem’s case, claiming Devitt altered his account of what occurred during the arrest, while the others wrote reports backing him up.
“Mohamed Sayem should not have faced felony charges for three years, so there is obvious relief in the dismissal” of the felony charge, Sanders said in an email to the Times. “At the same time, it is brutal that Mr. Sayem continues as a criminal defendant.”
The video of the arrest was recorded by a camera mounted in Devitt’s patrol car. It shows Devitt and Deputy Eric Ota wake Sayem and ask for his identification, which he didn’t provide. From his speech and behavior, Sayem, who was slumped over in the driver’s seat, appeared to be intoxicated.
When Sayem moved in an apparent attempt to exit the car, Devitt put his hands on him. Sayem yelled at the deputy not to touch him and tried to pull away.
Devitt can then be seen pulling Sayem out of the car and repeatedly striking him.
While he was on the ground, Sayem asked the deputies whether they were going to shoot him. Devitt said no, but Ota said he would “like to.” Ota omitted the exchange from his report and the department did not conduct an investigation into the comment, according to Sanders’ court filing.
Then, as Sayem sat bloodied in the backseat of Devitt’s patrol car, Blaney “mused nostalgically” of another fight he had been in, Sanders wrote.
“I got in another good one last week,” he told the other deputies, laughing, the court documents say.
To Hibbs, the supervisor, a deputy is heard saying, “You’re recording this now?” Another said, “You’ve been recording this the whole …” Before the deputy could finish his sentence, Lewis walked over and turned off Hibbs’ recorder, the court documents say.
Eleven minutes of silence followed. Without the audio being recorded, Devitt can be seen on the video talking with the other deputies and the report he then wrote about the arrest gave a different version of events from what he initially told Hibbs, Sanders alleged in his court filing.
Devitt first reported that he had pulled Sayem from the car and that Sayem had attempted to put him in a bear hug, Sanders said. Then, in the report, he painted a more threatening picture of Sayem, saying the man had forced his way out of the car and had grabbed the deputy by the shirt, Sanders said.
When asked for comment earlier this summer, sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun provided a statement that former Sheriff Sandra Hutchens made at the time of the arrest defending Devitt.
“The deputy used force appropriate for the situation to gain control of an uncooperative, assaultive and intoxicated person,” Hutchens said. “Any assertion otherwise substantially misrepresents the facts, and serves only to swell an anti-law enforcement narrative.”
This week, Braun declined to comment further, saying, “It’s the discretion of the district attorney to determine what charges are filed and pursued” against Sayem.
A D.A. spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.
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