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Get outta sphere

A cell phone video captures the facts in an ambiguous case of obstructing justice

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Freddie Sarenana found himself in hot water because he couldn’t mind his own business. But that’s just one side of the story.

Sarenana, 31, of Atascadero, thought his friends were being harassed by police and began taping what he saw. But he got too close to the action; on Dec. 9, a jury convicted him of obstructing a peace officer, a misdemeanor.

“It’s not the crime of the century,” said Deputy District Attorney Dave Paxton.

‘YOU MAY GO’:  Freddie Sarenana found himself in the back of a patrol car after he walked the fine line between spectator and instigator, as captured in his cell phone video (pictured). - IMAGE COURTESY OF FREDDIE SARENANA
  • IMAGE COURTESY OF FREDDIE SARENANA
  • ‘YOU MAY GO’: Freddie Sarenana found himself in the back of a patrol car after he walked the fine line between spectator and instigator, as captured in his cell phone video (pictured).

Even his arresting officer, Atascadero Police Department Sgt. Joe Allen, agrees that Sarenana isn’t an intimidating person. He’s bright and amiable, if idealistic and at times a bit scattered. Lasting effects from a head injury when he was younger cause moments of confusion and disorientation. For this, he’s prescribed medication.

On June 11, Sarenana—who’s been homeless for the last eight months and alternates between sleeping in his truck and at a local shelter—was perusing the Saturday morning flea market at Atascadero’s Sunken Gardens. Entering the park, he noticed a police officer searching the bags of two friends he knew from the shelter.

He knew police were investigating a report of stolen prescription drugs at the shelter. He also knew the two—40-year-old David Hodges and 23-year-old Candace Rowe—were suspects.

Upon leaving the park about 30 minutes later, Sarenana saw that another officer had now entered the picture. Hodges stood between both officers, and Rowe—seven months pregnant—sat on a bench facing the Gardens.

Sarenana pulled his cell phone from his pocket and crossed West Mall Street toward the scene. What happened next would later be debated in court, but the video tells its own story.

In Sarenana’s minute-long, upside-down, and shaky clip, he walks up to Hodges, though it’s unclear just how close he stood.

“How’s it going, buddy? Everything okay?” he asks Hodges, who mutters something inaudible. Immediately, officers Danny Gregory and Joe Allen try to shoo Sarenana away.

“You may go. You may leave,” Gregory and Allen say several times.

Sarenana responds “OK,” but doesn’t move.

“You gonna listen to me? You wanna go to jail?” Allen asks him.

“You’re going to arrest me for standing here? Honestly?” Sarenana says as the video frame quickly twists; his hands were placed behind his back. The cuffs go on, and the video ends. The incident takes about 20 seconds.

“It appeared to me he was baiting us,” Allen later testified.

Sarenana said he immediately placed his hands behind his back instead of backing away from the advancing officers because he didn’t want to resist arrest.

According to his testimony, Allen took the phone out of his hand, turned it off, and placed it in Sarenana’s pocket. Yet Allen said he was unaware of a video until a week before the trial.

Allen also testified that Gregory had contacted the two suspects earlier that morning and found a hypodermic needle in Hodges’ bag—the reason for the whole incident—but no drugs. During the search, officers got an urgent call for service and left without confiscating the needle—a mistake Allen called a “training moment.” Gregory later spotted the two at the Gardens and went in to follow up, with Allen arriving for back up.

Though no needles or drugs were found on Hodges, he was arrested on suspicion of possession of drug paraphernalia. The case against him was later dismissed.

Here’s where things get dicey. Sarenana told New Times Allen isn’t a bad cop; by all indications, he’s a really good cop. According to Allen’s testimony, he’s a 16-year veteran of the department, in charge of training officers in professional conduct and defensive tactics, including those used to control situations, what he called “verbal judo.”

About an hour prior to his testimony at Sarenana’s trial, Allen was one of three officers to save a man’s life in the lobby of the courthouse, after the man went into cardiac arrest near the metal detectors.

But Allen’s expertise in defusing tense situations makes the incident more curious. Under cross-examination by defense attorney Ginger Ortiz, Allen had to defend his police report of the incident, shown by the video to be questionable at best, if not largely inaccurate.

In his report, Allen wrote that Sarenana was argumentative, proclaiming, “You can’t make me leave, I have a right to be here,” and “You can’t arrest me, I know my rights.” But Sarenana never made mention of “rights.” Allen wrote that Sarenana said, “I am recording this, you will pay,” when in fact Sarenana said, “I’m recording this right now, the judge will get to see it,” after he was cuffed.

Allen admitted this inconsistency, but insisted there’s “no way” to quote verbatim in a report. Ortiz then argued that the officers presented Sarenana with an option—never a direct command—and didn’t tell him at what distance he needed to stay. Instead, she said, they just arrested him.

“If an officer is ambiguous and you miss the social cue, well, too bad. You go to jail. If you ask for clarification, too bad. You go to jail,” Ortiz said to the jury.

“My command was direct; I didn’t insult him, I was trying to gain compliance,” Allen testified. “There was no other way to [make] him leave the area.”

Allen said Sarenana inserted himself into the officers’ “sphere of investigation,” putting them in danger as they interviewed two suspects. The dimensions of a “sphere of investigation” were never explained by Allen, but he argued that Sarenana was simply too close to the action.

“I was trying to get clarification from the officers so I know what a safe distance was,” Sarenana testified. “It was the blink of an eye. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to think.”

In what would prove a deciding factor in the jury’s verdict, Sarenana testified he patted Hodges on the back. However, the zoom of the camera and way in which he was holding the phone—arm extended in front of his chest—may distort his actual distance.

Going into their closing arguments, both sides claimed to be glad for the video, when in reality it debunked points made by both parties.

Paxton, the prosecutor, attempted to paint Sarenana as a troublemaker with an axe to grind with law enforcement, after Sarenana stated that police target and harass the homeless around the Sunken Gardens: “He knows his rights and he’s gonna tell you about it. He’s your street corner civil rights attorney.”

Ortiz said the video proves the officers acted hastily and that Allen inflated his report to justify it.

“[Officers] did not give him a single directive. In fact, [they] started the whole thing by giving him a choice,” Ortiz argued. “What if we didn’t have the videotape? We would have Allen’s report. And guess what? It’s not accurate. We would be stuck with that.”

After Superior Court Judge John Trice commended both attorneys for “some of the best closing arguments [he’d] heard in a long time,” the jury deliberated for about an hour before finding Sarenana guilty, based on their opinion that he put himself within the officers’ “sphere of investigation.”

Trice sentenced Sarenana to five days in jail, a $750 fine, and three years of probation.

“The lesson I learned in court is to turn the other cheek and just mind my own fucking business,” Sarenana told New Times.

But he still believes he was in the right.

“There’s a fight-or-flight reaction. At that moment, I felt a fight because I was sick and tired of seeing people who’ve been dealt the wrong cards get kicked when they’re down,” he said. “But I was seriously only there to videotape, so they knew somebody was watching.”

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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