Calif. officer accused of blinding woman

Prosecutors say Beaumont officer permanently blinded a woman with pepper spray during a DUI investigation

By John Asbury and Richard K. De Atley
The Press Enterprise

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A Beaumont police officer has been indicted on assault charges after prosecutors say he permanently blinded a woman with pepper spray during a drunken driving investigation.

During an altercation as he tried to handcuff her, Officer Enoch Clark, 37, used a pepper-spray gun about 10 inches from the face of Monique Christina Hernandez, 32, of Beaumont, authorities said.

The weapon Clark used, called a JPX device, uses a wafer of gunpowder to propel a stream of pepper spray at speeds of more than 400 mph, Riverside County district attorney's office spokesman John Hall said. It is supposed to be used at a minimum distance of five feet, and optimally between six and 16 feet.

Clark was indicted last week after three days of proceedings by a Riverside County criminal grand jury. He is charged with four felonies: assault with a less-lethal weapon; use of force causing serious bodily injury; assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury and assault under the color of authority.

He was arraigned Thursday morning at the Riverside County Hall of Justice, and he pleading not guilty to all charges. He left court without commenting and posted bond on $50,000 bail.

On Feb. 21, police were called to a Beaumont home where someone reported Hernandez was causing a disturbance, Clark's attorney Kasey Castillo said in an email. Clark responded and was met by Hernandez's family

Officers learned Hernandez had left the house and was believed to be driving under the influence, Beaumont police said in February. Clark stopped her three miles away. When he tried to handcuff her, she resisted and he used the pepper-spray gun, police said.

The initial statement from police said Hernandez had been arrested, but officials said earlier this month that no arrest was made when she was released from the hospital. She was not charged with DUI.

Beaumont police asked the Riverside County Sheriff's Department to investigate Clark's use of force, the city said in a statement Thursday. Sheriff's investigators then forwarded the case to the district attorney, who convened a criminal grand jury last week.

"The grand jury found the force necessary to resolve the situation was in excess of what was needed," said Hall, the district attorney's spokesman. "Any officer that was going to be carrying that device in Beaumont was trained on how it was supposed to be used."

Clark's attorney said he used the pepper-spray gun "to gain compliance and in defense of his person. Unfortunately, that deployment resulted in unintended injuries to Ms. Hernandez."

"Officer Clark is, of course, anxious for his day in court," Castillo said. "While remorseful for the injuries to Ms. Hernandez, he is innocent of all charges."

The Beaumont Police Department has hired an outside firm to conduct an administrative review of Clark's actions that is expected to be concluded soon, the city said.

Clark has been placed on administrative leave during the investigation, which the city said is protocol. He was previously listed as president of the Beaumont Police Officer's Association, but another officer now holds that title, according to the union website.

Civil Complaint Planned
Hernandez's civil attorney, Milton Grimes, said Clark used the pepper-spray gun "without provocation, without any cause, without any reason whatsoever … That's why he has been charged."

Hernandez was permanently blinded, her attorney said. She came to court Thursday wearing large sunglasses and using a white cane, which Grimes said she is beginning to learn how to use.

He said Hernandez also said she was shocked with a Taser during the struggle.

Grimes said he is preparing a civil complaint against Beaumont that was delayed because of the grand jury proceedings. Complaints seeking damages are the first step toward filing a lawsuit, if the city rejects the complaint.

Hernandez and several family members were seated in the back of the courtroom during the brief arraignment before Riverside County Superior Court Judge Becky Dugan. Afterward, she stood outside the courthouse with Grimes, though he asked her not to discuss the case.

Grimes said several witnesses and a police cruiser dashboard video captured the confrontation involving Clark. He said he had not seen the video.

Hernandez has a 10-year-old daughter "that she will never see again," Grimes said.

He said before the confrontation, his client had worked five years at the Beaumont Walmart, and was an employee of the year in 2011. Her blindness ended her career there, he said. "Her goal was to manage her own Walmart, if not be a regional manager. All of that has been taken away from her."

'Tough Cases'
Loyola Law professor Laurie Levenson said prosecuting police for on-duty force is rare, but is slowly becoming more common as prosecutors are more willing to take on cases.

Convicting officers for on-duty force has been challenging because jurors tend to sympathize with police, Levenson said. Prosecutors can go to grand juries to pursue charges in volatile cases, which helps shoulder the burden and gauge public reaction before going to trial, Levenson said.

Misuse of a weapon may not be enough for a criminal conviction, Levenson said. She said jurors often weigh an officer's intent and whether they planned to inflict harm.

"They're tough cases. Most officers are doing the right thing and prosecutors realize how difficult it is to win these cases," Levenson said. "We do give officers latitude in using force - they have a tough job and events unfold quickly. Many jurors are reluctant to second-guess force."

Copyright 2012 The Press Enterprise, Inc.

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