An Orange County Sheriff’s Department dashcam video shows a deputy repeatedly punching a motorist in the face while arresting him for misdemeanor public intoxication this year, an action the man’s attorney calls excessive force.
Mohamed Sayem is facing a felony resisting arrest charge over a confrontation with Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies Michael Devitt and Eric Ota that turned violent in the early hours of Aug. 19. He has pleaded not guilty, according to court records.
Devitt claimed in an incident report and in an interview with his supervisor following the scuffle that Sayem assaulted him after the deputies found him intoxicated in his Jeep in a Stanton parking lot. Devitt’s accounts of the incident are contradicted by footage recorded on police dashboard cameras, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders alleged in a motion seeking the deputies’ personnel files.
A statement Thursday from the Sheriff’s Department said “a review of the full video indicates that the deputy made every attempt to deescalate the situation and provide the subject multiple opportunities to simply provide his identification. The subject refused to do so and attempted to physically engage the deputy, during which the deputy used force appropriate for the situation.”
Neither Devitt nor Ota could be reached for comment.
The encounter unfolded when the deputies woke Sayem and and asked for his identification, which he didn’t provide. Sayem appeared to be intoxicated, was slumped over in the driver’s seat and gave “a number of partially understandable answers, statements, and insults — often chuckling and falling in the car as he delivered them,” according to court records.
Devitt placed his hand on Sayem in an effort to keep him in the vehicle after Sayem put his left leg out of the car, apparently in an effort to get out. Sayem yelled at the deputy not to touch him and tried to pull away. That’s when the scene took a violent turn.
Devitt grabbed Sayem by the left arm and pulled him out of the vehicle. The horn sounded as Sayem clung to the steering wheel with his right hand as Devitt lobbed several blows at his face.
During the third or fourth punches, Sayem lost his grip on the steering wheel and fell to the ground. After the scuffle, Sayem asked the deputies if they were going to shoot him. Devitt responds “no,” while Ota said he’d “like to.”
Sanders alleges that Devitt fictionalized key details, including Sayem’s violence, in order to justify using force to his supervisor and in a subsequent report. Details of his story also change between the first interview and the report, Sanders said.
Devitt told his supervisor that he planned to charge Sayem with felony resisting, which requires a threat or violence, because “he tried to bear hug on me.”
In his report, he doesn’t mention the bear hug. Instead, he alleges Sayem grabbed his vest and pulled on it.
“I used my left hand and pushed his face in an effort to create some space between us,” Devitt wrote. “He did not let go of my vest and continued to physically struggle. Due to his aggressive demeanor, and the fact he was already resisting, I believed Sayem was going to continue to try and physically assault me.”
The second dashcam video shows the deputies talking with supervisor Sgt. Christopher Hibbs about the incident. Devitt doesn’t mention this version of events to Hibbs, who interviewed him minutes after the incident, Sanders said.
“He unjustifiably used very significant violence against my client, and he knew he did it without justification,” Sanders said Thursday. “His answer was to make my client a felon for the rest of his life, so he doesn’t get held accountable for his act of violence.”
Sanders also questioned whether the Sheriff’s Department handled the incident properly, noting that Hibbs was charged in 2009 with felony assault and battery and felony use of a Taser for shocking a handcuffed man sitting in the back of a police car. That case eventually ended in a mistrial and was dismissed. According to reports at the time, prosecutors blamed the result on a “code of silence” among testifying deputies. Hibbs could not immediately be reached for comment.
“I think that this agency believes they have impunity,” Sanders said Thursday. “Folks are not standing up to them, and they’re not being punished. They’re completely fearless. There’s something at the core that’s very wrong with what’s going on here.”