A Southern California sheriff’s deputy yanked an intoxicated man from his parked car and repeatedly punched him in the face until he lost consciousness, placed him under arrest, and then blamed the violence on the motorist, according to court documents and dashcam video footage.
On the morning of Aug. 19, two Orange County sheriff’s deputies found Mohamed Sayem sleeping in the driver’s seat of his Jeep in the parking lot of a bar in Stanton, California. Footage from a police dashcam shows the deputies flank either side of the black Wrangler, and after a brief and mostly unintelligible conversation, because Sayem was so intoxicated, Deputy Michael Devitt reaches in, grabs the 33-year-old from out of his seat, and punches him until he falls to the ground.
However, in an incident report and ensuing interview with their supervisor, the deputies stated that the intoxicated motorist had provoked the attack.
Sayem, a bus driver, is now facing a felony charge of resisting arrest and has pleaded not guilty, court records show. His attorney, assistant public defender Scott Sanders, says that his client is a victim of “unjustifiable, significant force” and of a false report.
“There is no way you can justify that level of violence when video shows that this guy was so wholly intoxicated that he can't even wake up or insult them,” Sanders told BuzzFeed News. “Then they lied about it in a false report, a sergeant signed off on it, and now they say the officer’s actions were appropriate. What kind of department says this kind of treatment of a person is fine?”
In his motion, Sanders combed through Devitt’s report and other deputies’ testimonies, flagging what he calls “blatant lies” contradicted by the video and audio recordings of the incident.
After shaking Sayem awake around 6 a.m. that day, the deputies can be heard repeatedly asking for his identification, which he did not provide. In the recordings, the driver mumbles and delivers “a number of partially understandable answers, statements, and insults — often chuckling and falling in the car as he delivered them,” the court documents state.
“Are you going to breath me?” Sayem slurs.
“What? Stay in the fucking car, dude,” a deputy responds.
Sayem then asserts that he is going to leave, and tries to get out of the car. Devitt puts his hand on the driver and warns him not to.
“Don’t touch me like that,” the driver yells, trying to pull his arm away.
The deputy then grabs Sayem by the arm and yanks him out as he tries to cling to the steering wheel, blaring his horn as Devitt quickly delivers multiple punches to his face. Sayem eventually lets go of the wheel and falls to the ground as the deputy continues to pummel him.
“Are you going to shoot me?” Sayem asks, his face in the ground as the deputies handcuff him.
“No,” one replies, while the other chimes in, “I'd like to.”
“That’s an unimaginable response,” Sanders said. “You don't treat people like that in any situation.”
After the scuffle, Devitt’s supervisor, Sgt. Christopher Hibbs, arrives and asks what transpired. In his motion, Sanders says the deputies fabricated things Sayem said, including gang-language and the n-word, to paint his client as aggressive and insinuate the intoxicated man prompted the violence.
Devitt also changed his story several times between the first interview and the subsequent report, the attorney alleges.
First, the deputy stated that the driver tried to “bear hug on me,” which provoked the punches. Then, in his report, he explained that Sayem grabbed onto his vest, did not let go, “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,” he wrote.
In the dashcam footage, however, the deputy never describes this interaction. Instead, he says that Sayem “stepped out of the vehicle and stood over me,” calling the scuffle an “assisted fall.”
“I grabbed the back of Sayem’s shirt with his shoulder to slow down his fall. ... I helped him fall to the ground, basically,” he tells his supervisor, who later approved the reports of both Devitt and the other deputy, Eric Ota, despite them being different from what he was told in the field.
In another dashcam video from that morning, deputies can be heard talking and laughing about recent “fights” with suspects.
“That was a good fight,” one chuckled, and another replied, “I got in another good one last week.”
In a statement, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department defended the actions of the deputies and said the use of force was warranted. The department also stood by the incident report, concluding that it is “consistent with the video in its entirety.”
“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 department said, adding that Sayem “attempted to physically engage the deputy.”
“The deputy used force appropriate for the situation to gain control of an uncooperative, assaultive and intoxicated person,” the department continued. “Any assertion otherwise substantially misrepresents the facts, and serves only to swell an anti-law enforcement narrative.”
Sanders balked at the statement, saying it was “typical of this department.” The public defender pointed to a 2009 case in which a deputy was charged with felony assault and battery for unnecessarily tasing a handcuffed man sitting in the back of a squad car. The case ended in a mistrial and was dismissed.
“This just shows how insensitive this department is to human beings,” the attorney said. “When someone becomes a felon it ruins their life. These officers were willing to do that so he could get away with beating a man. It’s unconscionable.”