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Judge allows conspiracy and false imprisonment charges in Costa Mesa spying case

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Chris Lanzillo is one of two private investigators facing felony charges in connection with a fake DUI report against Costa Mesa City Council member Jim Righeimer in 2012 and using GPS devices to illegally track Councilman Steve Mensinger.

(File photo)

An Orange County judge ruled Friday that there is enough evidence to hold a pair of private investigators for trial on charges of false imprisonment and conspiracy in connection with a fake DUI report against a Costa Mesa City Council member that caused a police officer to detain the councilman outside his home in 2012.

Superior Court Judge Cheri Pham’s decision reverses a magistrate’s August ruling that the officer’s sobriety test on council member Jim Righeimer didn’t constitute a detention, thereby negating prosecutors’ charge of false imprisonment.

Over objections from defense attorneys, Pham also said there is enough evidence to suggest that private investigators Chris Lanzillo and Scott Impola conspired in advance about the fake drunk-driving report.

Her decision means Lanzillo and Impola now face felony counts of conspiracy and false imprisonment related to the DUI stop instead of lesser charges.

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Both are charged with two more felony counts of conspiracy on allegations of using GPS devices to illegally track a lawyer and a second Costa Mesa councilman, Steve Mensinger.

Prosecutors allege that Lanzillo and Impola were trying to dig up dirt on a group of City Council candidates who were feuding with the local police union in the run-up to Costa Mesa’s 2012 elections. Council members Mensinger and Gary Monahan were up for election, and Righeimer is their ally.

Authorities believe the private investigators were working for the now-defunct law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which represented the Costa Mesa Police Assn. at the time.

Prosecutors say that as part of a campaign against the candidates, the police association had recently increased the law firm’s retainer with instructions to find damaging information.

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The police union and the law firm have not been charged with any crimes. Prosecutors have granted police association members immunity in exchange for their testimony.

Much of the case against Lanzillo and Impola centers around the night of Aug. 22, 2012. Prosecutors say Impola and a woman working with him were surveilling Monahan in a restaurant he owns in Costa Mesa.

After seeing Righeimer at the restaurant’s bar, Impola contacted Lanzillo, who tailed Righeimer when he drove off, prosecutors allege.

According to testimony at a preliminary hearing, Lanzillo called 911 to report that Righeimer was swerving in and out of lanes.

Soon after, a Costa Mesa police officer arrived at Righeimer’s home and administered a sobriety test, which Righeimer quickly passed. Righeimer later produced a receipt for two Diet Cokes from Monahan’s restaurant.

Though Righeimer’s contact with the officer lasted less than a minute and the councilman consented to the sobriety test, Pham said any reasonable person in the same situation would understand that he wasn’t free to leave until the officer had finished the investigation.

Pham also agreed with prosecutors that a series of phone calls among Lanzillo, Impola and law firm partner Dieter Dammeier before Lanzillo’s 911 call supported charging the private investigators with criminal conspiracy in the DUI report.

She added, however, that the evidence was circumstantial and may not be enough to produce a conviction, which requires a higher standard of proof.

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Prosecutor Robert Mestman said Pham’s decision adds a few months to the possible jail time Lanzillo and Impola could face.

Each could be sentenced to a maximum of four years and four months behind bars if convicted, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.


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