Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"We'll Kick Your ASS!!"

The Kern County Sheriff's Department probably thought the embarrassing episode was well in the past.

Since the former sheriff lost a 2006 re-election bid, a slogan on the side of a few patrol cars proclaiming "We'll kick your ass" has fallen off the front pages and been relegated to urban-legend status and a few snarky mentions on the Internet.

But the infamous slogan is news once again as a key part of an excessive-force lawsuit filed by a Georgia long-haul trucker and his wife that is being heard in a Fresno federal courtroom.

Thomas Philip tussled with Kern County sheriffs deputies, was pepper-sprayed and then badly bitten by one of the department's patrol dogs before he was arrested in the fall of 2003. His wife, Brenda Gross Philip, also was arrested.

They claim in a trial brief that the department's slogan shows that an "intent to do harm" is part of the department's culture.

Bakersfield attorney Andrew Thomson dismissed the charge. The slogans "were done in humor," he told jurors last week.

No cars that were on the streets featured the slogan, and no deputies changed the way they acted or reacted or changed their perception of the law based on the decals, he said. And, he added, then-Sheriff Mack Wimbish ordered the slogans removed when he saw the cars.

At the time, the slogan caused a minor uproar in Bakersfield. The Bakersfield Californian newspaper cited it as one reason it supported Wimbish's opponent when he sought re-election in 2006. Wimbish lost.

"It was an unfortunate attempt at public relations when it happened, and it was immediately renounced," Kern County spokesman Allan Krauter said. "That's certainly not the attitude the county wants to portray to the people whom it serves, and it's certainly not the attitude of the current sheriff."

In their trial brief, the Philips also say a Kern County Sheriff's Department K-9 car featured the slogan, "We'll Bite Your Ass."

The series of events leading up to the Philips' arrests started in Georgia, where the couple live. At the time, they were seriously dating, and Brenda, a hairdresser, decided to accompany Thomas on one of his cross-country drives to see how they would get along.

Thomas Philip had a high-security military clearance and often handled items such as missiles, torpedoes and humvees. He was carrying a load to the Lemoore Naval Air Station.

By the time the couple reached Las Vegas, things were going so well that they decided to get married.

Three days later, they pulled into Bakersfield and settled in at a Days Inn near the Scotsman Restaurant.

Thomas Philip had raved about the Scotsman's patty melts and Reuben sandwiches, and he couldn't wait to introduce them to his new bride.

By midnight, Philip was under arrest and on his way to the hospital after the exchange with Kern County sheriff's deputies.

In opening statements to jurors, Fresno attorney Dean Gordon outlined an unprovoked assault on Thomas Philip by deputies responding to a 911 call to the restaurant. Gordon said the disputed slogan was not a fluke or a joke, but rather it reflected how deputies actually conducted themselves.

"Tom was a bloody mess," he told jurors.

He portrayed Philip as a compliant person facing aggressive deputies. Philip only resisted because the arrest appeared unlawful to him, Gordon said.

Thomson -- who is representing Kern County, Wimbish, the Sheriff's Department and two deputies -- doesn't deny that Philip was pepper-sprayed or bitten by a police dog. But Thomson said deputies acted within the law.

He portrayed Philip not as an innocent diner ambushed by deputies, but as a man who was agitated, aggressive, unruly and intoxicated. Philip refused repeated requests to stop resisting arrest, Thomson said.

"The entire situation could have been stopped by one person at any point," Thomson told jurors. "Mr. Philip could have stopped resisting."

The incident itself features two wildly divergent accounts -- one by the Philips, the other from Kern County sheriff's deputies.

For instance, the Philips' trial brief says the couple were asked to leave the restaurant, but the waitress "thought they were slow in doing so," so she called 911. The trial brief says the restaurant's bartender said the couple only had "a small amount of beer and did not appear to be intoxicated."

But Thomson said the Philips were both drinking, and that Thomas Philip was belligerent and refused to leave the restaurant.

The couple are seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Closing arguments in the trial, being heard by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger, are expected on Wednesday.

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