by Bill Barton
At about 6 a.m., August 19, 2018, Orange County police officer Michael Devitt yanked Mohamed Sayem from his Jeep and punched him several times in the face and stomach, an incident captured on Devitt’s dashboard camera.
Devitt and fellow officer Eric Ota had awakened the apparently intoxicated Sayem and asked him for identification. After trading insults with the officers, Sayem placed his foot outside the Jeep a couple of times, spurring Devitt to grab and punch him.
Following the altercation, Sgt. Christopher Hibbs was assigned to investigate Devitt’s use of force. Devitt told Hibbs that Sayem “went into this ‘verbal berate’” using a racial slur. He said that Sayem “comes up on me” and “tried to bear hug me,” that Sayem stepped outside of the Jeep and was “basically standing over me.”
There is no depiction of a bear hug on the dashcam video, no use of racist language, and no evidence that Sayem stepped out of the vehicle; it shows that he was holding on to the steering wheel when Devitt pulled him out.
On June 4, 2019, Scott Sanders, Sayem’s public defender, filed a motion to compel the Orange County District Attorney’s Office to provide “critical pieces of as yet undisclosed evidence, and to allow him [Sanders] to take testimony from the officers.” A ruling is pending on his motion, and there has been no comment from the office.
Sandra Hutchens, who at the time of the incident was the sheriff, said in October 2018, “The suspect did not comply with the deputy’s directives. An appropriate use of force was utilized at that time. My deputy is not on trial. The suspect is on trial for assaulting a peace officer.”
“What happened to Sayem absolutely reflects the larger systemic issues with the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office,” said Brendan Hamme, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “The criminal justice system in Orange County is in crisis.”
Sanders said, “It’s bad enough they lied and made up the story. But why is [Mr. Sayem] facing a felony right now? It’s just obvious — cop got out of control, blew it, didn’t want to tell the truth so he decide to put the blame on Mr. Sayem.”
Laura Fernandez, a lecturer at Yale Law School who specializes in prosecutorial accountability, said Sayem’s case reveals the “culture of impunity” in Orange County’s district attorney and sheriff’s offices.
“The complete and utter lack of accountability we’ve seen in Orange County only serves to reinforce what amounts to a toxic culture.”
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