Detention of the suspect in driving a vehicle in a large group of recruits from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department – injuring 25 of them, five critically – took an inexplicable turn.
Nicolas Joseph Gutierrez was arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of attempted murder of peacekeepers. On Thursday afternoon, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva called the collision a “premeditated act” and suggested Gutierrez intentionally crashed into the recruits while they were at a morning workout.
But a few hours later, Gutierrez was released under a California law that allows law enforcement to release arrestees without arraignment unless there is sufficient cause to file a criminal complaint.
Gutierrez’s arrest was treated as a hold, jail records show, and prosecutors say they have not received a case for review.
Tiffini Blacknell, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement Friday that prosecutors have been in contact with the sheriff’s department and the California Highway Patrol, which is investigating the crash along with the sheriff’s homicide unit. .
“Our office was informed late [Thursday] that they will not file a case at this time and that they will release the suspect,” Blacknell said.
Legal experts and criminal defense lawyers say the case sheds light on the balance between prosecution and criminal procedure, including fact-finding and constitutional rights.
Many expressed confidence that criminal charges would eventually be filed; the question, they say, is what can be proven by evidence that proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Maybe in the eyes of the public it seems like, ‘Oh my God!’ that person is out,” said Lisa Zhao Liu, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, adding that some may be quick to blame the district attorney’s office. “Most likely, the fact is that the district attorney’s office has not presented enough evidence at this point to support specific allegations, but that could change as new evidence comes to light.”
In most cases, prosecutors have 48 hours to take a person into custody, said Luis Shapiro, a prominent attorney in California. This is because the accused has the right to a fair and speedy trial.
In a case like this, in which the suspect was arrested Wednesday, charges are expected by Friday — unless the person has been released on bail, he said. An arraignment or arraignment can be delayed up to 72 hours if a weekend or holiday falls immediately after an arrest, Shapiro said.
“But the forensic evidence and technical data from the car take time to collect and analyze for the expert to write a report,” he said. “It’s not like he shot someone with a gun. It’s more complicated and the data about the car is vital, even if you think you know the motive.’
Lori Levenson, a criminal law professor at Loyola Law School, said Villanueva’s use of the word “intentional” was “pretty vague.” And at the end of the day, the prosecution must consider the evidence and the law.
“We need to know: Did this person, speaking the language of the law, have a specific intention? Did he intend to run over these recruits?” Levenson said. “That’s a question that needs to be answered.”
Experts said examples of specific intent in an attempted murder case, such as how the suspect in the South Whittier crash was initially arrested, could include evidence that the person hated the sheriff’s department, had a bad relationship with the department, or had information about recruits and their training schedule ahead of time. So far, there is no public indication that such evidence exists in the case.
The department could have filed lesser charges with the prosecutor’s office, according to former prosecutor Dmitry Gorin. But it can be prickly.
“If they’re underestimating him, he can plead guilty immediately and avoid a more serious charge,” Gorin said.
Speaking Friday at Salazar Park in East Los Angeles, Sheriff-elect Robert Luna declined to discuss the investigation and referred questions about it to Villanueva, but he said the incident is “absolutely on my mind.”
According to Luna, the recruits were injured while working on “the purpose of serving our community.” He offered his prayers for those who were injured, their families and the personnel who instructed them.
It is not uncommon for people to be released from custody, lawyers say.
“A lot of times people are arrested, released and then arrested again,” Shapiro said, noting that this most often happens when the prosecutor requests more investigation. “But here, investigators preempted that decision, knowing they needed more information.”
Investigators continue to gather and review evidence against Gutierrez, but law enforcement cannot hold a suspect in custody for more than 48 hours without presenting the prosecutor’s case, said Sgt. Gerardo Magas, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Once investigators build a case, they plan to re-arrest Gutierrez and present him to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, Magas said.
Prosecutors have at least one year to file misdemeanor charges from the date of the incident and three years to file most felony charges, Liu said. Violent felonies have a longer statute of limitations, and some such as Penal Code 187 PC (murder) — do not have a statute of limitations.
Times staff writer Gregory Yee contributed to this report.