(In our continuing interview, Deputy Orell Massey, Mendocino County’s first and only black deputy, looks back after about 20 years as a Mendocino County patrol deputy.)
* * *
AVA: What's your experience testifying in court? I gather that most deputies try to avoid it. It seems like sometimes the officer is on trial to prove that all the correct steps were taken rather than the suspect for the alleged crime.
Massey: That's true. We get a lot of young attorneys coming through here who want to learn what they can and maybe make a reputation. There was one young attorney who is no longer here who tried to file as many 1538 motions to suppress as he could. He did it to see if the officer was truthful in his report. I spoke to this attorney before he left. He actually asked me if I was tired of those 1538 motions? He knew that he was doing it and what effect it would have. He wanted to challenge every little thing that I did and said in my report. It was one of his tactics. He will probably use that tactic the rest of his career. Usually by the time you are testifying its months after you wrote the report. And you have to get up there and testify about what you wrote. In addition, they put you on the record during the preliminary hearing and then if it goes to trial, your testimony better not differ from what you said at the preliminary hearing. If you say something even slightly different, the defense attorney will compare it to what you said in the transcript three months ago in an attempt to undermine your credibility. "Now which is it?" You are expected to testify to the exact same thing that you said at the preliminary hearing. Sometimes it could be as much as a year later when you finally go to trial. You cannot read from your report either, you can use it you can use it to refresh your memory, but you can't read from it. "Your honor, he's reading from his report. Please ask him to answer the question." And then if you missed something there, they'll accuse you of not remembering accurately. So yes, defense attorneys will use that tactic.
AVA: Did racism come up during any of your court appearances?
Massey: Not as much. But there was one attorney who is still there in the public defender’s office who made some racist comments to one of the prosecutors by email. Of course, the prosecutor notified the court and it came down to — basically the email said that the attorney didn't think I was telling the truth when I was stopping all these white women. This attorney still works in the public defender's office! The prosecutor also still works in the District Attorney's Office. I read that and I said to myself, Holy Jumping Jack! If he made those comments in a formal email, I can only imagine what he and his friends might be saying.
And there is a judge on the bench right now who made comments about me saying my traffic stops were frequently unjustified. One of the clerks told me about that. That may have explained why this particular judge was tossing some of my arrests out. It's unusual because I am very thorough and careful in handling these things. I suspect that it might be personal, there might be a connection between one of my arrests of a family member of this judge. That same attorney who filed all the 1538 motions preferred to have his cases before this particular judge because there was a better chance of having the case tossed for insufficient evidence or lack of probable cause. To me, there is no question that the person is in violation when I file a report.
When the District Attorney’s office heard about this judge’s opinion, they assigned a senior prosecutor to my cases when they came before this particular judge. I still don't see how a Superior Court Judge could say things about my arrests like that. It was shocking. That said, most of the time I think the judges are pretty fair, but you will always find some people who let personalities or your race enter into their decisions. I always felt like it was particularly hard for me to win a case in front of that judge.
There was a case I recall involving a guy who was speeding near the boat ramp at Lake Mendocino. I pulled up behind him and he was still speeding. I pulled him over. I recorded the conversation. It ended up being a drunk driving stop. A CHP officer came by to pick up the case like they regularly do. The CHP Officer casually said, Okay what's going on? And I joked, Oh, I'm just out here trying to scrounge up some business. Lo and behold, that tape came out and a defense attorney said that I was out there trying to scrounge up business so that meant I had no basis to stop his client. In the recording, however, the man admitted that he was speeding over the speed limit. So even though he admitted it, the judge took that “under advisement” and then came back with a written conclusion saying, "I begrudgingly find the defendant guilty” of that violation, the DUI. Again, even though this guy said he was going over the speed limit. The implication was that I was out there making up stuff and arresting people for no reason. It’s preposterous! He admitted he was speeding and the speed was recorded based on the GPS in my patrol car. I certainly didn't like appearing before that judge because of that attitude about my cases in particular. I don't know for sure where it all stems from, but I can guess.
AVA: I thought deputies tried to avoid speeding stops.
Massey: Yes, but this was at the boat ramp. It's very dangerous there. It's a big issue, families and kids run around all over the place. There's a spot coming down Marina Drive that is 15 mph and you see people zip through their dangerously a lot. So yes, I'd park on the side of that road and watch for those speeders. The Park Service wants us to do that.
AVA: People just drive right by you like that?
Yes. They speed through there and when they see me they jam on the brakes. That's part of Lake patrol. And frequently they are drunk.
AVA: In and out?
Oh yes. In and out. Most of the time I don't issue tickets for speeding alone. Just a warning. I’ve probably only written two speeding tickets in my career. The GPS system in your car accurately tells you how fast you are going and you simply compare that to how fast they are going. It's all recorded. It's pretty obvious when somebody's going well over 15mph. So you deal with the blatant violators. The speeding is probable cause to stop them, but I usually don't issue speeding tickets if that's all it is — maybe if a person doesn't heed a warning. People will admit to speeding, but they typically won't admit to being drunk.
AVA: I can see where if somebody drives by you going in, and then gets drunk and then comes back the other way knowing you’re there, that would be pretty blatant.
Massey: That, or being on a cell phone, weaving, give me a break! Lake patrol is mainly just to make sure everybody is safe.
AVA: What's your opinion of the current courthouse and the plans to build a new one? Are any real problems being solved by spending all that money on just a new courthouse but no new support facilities?
Massey: From a security aspect, you have rules and guidelines you have to follow when transporting inmates. Some of these people are in there for murder, rape, robbery -- serious crimes. So serious felons are going in and out of the courthouse and are mingling with civilians who are walking in the hallways. Bad things could happen.
AVA: Okay, right. But why can't those problems be mitigated in the current courthouse?
Massey: There are also cracks in the floors, there's probably asbestos in the insulation. It's really old. It requires more and more maintenance. They're really does need to be a new courthouse. There are a variety of other amenities that would make court proceedings run more smoothly. Properly upgrading that old courthouse so that it's more secure and durable would probably cost a large portion of what they are proposing for the new courthouse. The security of the staff and law enforcement personnel is a real issue also. People are vulnerable in the current system there. There are a number of weak spots. There's also all that exposure on School Street as prisoners are entering and exiting the courthouse. People often have to wait their for long periods while people mill around. Anything could happen.
AVA: When Rick Martin was Assistant District Attorney back in the Vroman era he proposed that the court conduct arraignments in the jail to reduce the amount of transport back and forth, maybe on certain days of the week, particularly Monday.
Massey: Holding arraignments in the jail would be an improvement. A judge could come down and deal with most of the misdemeanors on the spot there. The taxpayers pay pretty well for court officials to make the best decisions for the county and protect the community. But when you look at what's going on you have to wonder who's actually making these decisions? Who's in charge of this and why is it set up the way it is? How did it get this ridiculous? I can't go into detail about all the vulnerabilities around the courthouse because that itself would present a security problem. But yes, that would help. We've also tried video arraignment. A public defender is available by video while the inmate sits in front of a camera in the jail. But that doesn't happen very much these days and it doesn't really make a dent in the problem. Also, some people in the jail want to go to the courthouse and face the judge directly.
AVA: Martin said that he had it all set up and all the participants — the DA, public defender, probation, court admin, etc. — agreed except the judges who didn't think the setup was nice enough for them.
Massey: I've never seen a judge at the jail. I've seen attorneys there and those times they do video arraignments with inmates, but never a judge – they are always in the courtroom. I don't know why they couldn't do arraignments in the jail. It makes sense to deal with as many cases there as possible.
AVA: So you don't think remodeling the current courthouse would solve the problem?
Massey: Oh, it probably could help, but I imagine it would cost a lot more than people think because of the condition of the old courthouse. I think the money would be better spent on an actual new courthouse.
AVA: What about all the support services and their offices?
Massey: I don't know if they've looked at other counties with similar problems but you certainly shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel for Mendocino County. There have to have been similar problems in other counties as these courthouses get older and older. They must have solved them reasonably well. They've been talking about building a new courthouse ever since I got here over 20 years ago. It seems to be one of those things that… It’s almost a fantasy that they use to avoid fixing problems at the old courthouse. ‘Oh, yeah. A new courthouse. Just a few more years like this…’
AVA: What about the jail. Pretty bad shape?
Massey: They’ve talked about a new jail over the years also. I was talking to one of the jail maintenance workers recently who has to work on things there every night. I told him that it looked like he was out there at the jail more than the regular correctional staff. He said, ‘There's always something wrong with the jail.’ He said he took one week off for vacation and when he came back there were three more weeks worth of work. He said he was afraid to go on vacation because things would just get worse. And many of those physical plant problems create real hazards in the jail. I wouldn't be surprised if they’ve spent enough money on jail maintenance over the years to make a decent down payment on a new one.
AVA: The subject comes up regularly — some kind of new module, maybe even a new jail. It always seems to be in the future too.
Massey: I've been to a lot of county jails in Northern California in my transport duties. This one is easily the worst. Nobody has a jail in such bad condition as ours. The one over in Yuba City might be almost as bad. But we're probably the worst. It’s very cramped in there. Most of the neighboring counties have much better facilities and things run safer and smoother.