Ninth Circuit Clears Anaheim Police Sergeant

PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – The Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday that an adverse inference jury instruction was not necessary regarding the fact that video evidence of police interrogations was deleted in the case of a man suing Anaheim Police Department officers for excessive force and torture.

Rafael Garcia Miranda was arrested in February 2012 in connection with the 1998 killing of Elizabeth Begaren, a California Department of Corrections officer who was slain on an Anaheim freeway offramp. Her husband, Nuzzio Begaren, was arrested 14 years later.

The two had been married for only a month and Nuzzio sought to collect on a $1 million life insurance policy he had taken out on Elizabeth, so he hired two gang members to kill her and make it look like a robbery, according to contemporary news reports.

Nuzzio was convicted and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Miranda was not implicated by anyone in the case, but was picked up by Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies and turned over to the Anaheim Police Department because he had tattoos similar to those of a suspect, according to the Orange County Register.

While in police custody, Miranda says, police officers, including defendant Anaheim police Sgt. Daron Wyatt, repeatedly beat him to get a confession, and deprived him of food, sleep, water and access to a restroom. Miranda was released after spending four months in jail before the charges were dropped.

Miranda unsuccessfully sued in Federal Court, alleging excessive force, torture, false imprisonment, battery and civil rights violations.

On appeal, he claims the court erred when it declined to issue an adverse jury instruction on the missing video evidence. The Ninth Circuit panel, in an unpublished opinion Wednesday, agreed with the trial court judge, who said he had discretion to issue such an instruction, but was not obligated to.

Wyatt testified credibly that he was overworked and that his failure to preserve a copy of the video was an honest mistake, the trial judge found. Audio of the interrogations was preserved and was presented at trial.

The Ninth Circuit agreed that jury members were free to make up their minds about the importance of the missing video.

“Though the district court concluded that an adverse inference jury instruction was permissible, the district court was not legally required to issue such an instruction,” the panel wrote. “The district court explained that plaintiffs were permitted to argue their position to the jury, that there was nothing ‘maligned’ in the erasure of the DVD, and that the jury was permitted to make its own conclusions about the deletion of the video.”

Miranda was represented by Mark Eisenberg of Irvine, who did not reply to a request for comment Thursday. Nor did the Anaheim Police Department.

The panel consisted of Ninth Circuit Judges Mary Schroeder and Mary Murguia, and U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason, from the District of Alaska, sitting by designation.

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