In the early morning hours of April 29, 1995, San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff Robert Ashton was at a Rancho Cucamonga restaurant when the screams of a waitress caught his attention. Ashton was directed by the waitress toward a group of suspects in a vehicle in the restaurant’s parking lot, next to which he observed another Deputy pointing what appeared to be a firearm at the driver. That Deputy instructed the driver to turn off the loudly reviving engine, while passengers in the car were yelling to the driver to flee.
As Ashton hurried past the front of the vehicle, the driver put the car in gear, and it lurched forward. Ashton barely dodged the accelerating vehicle, while simultaneously firing a round intended for the driver, but instead struck the right rear tire. The suspects were able to drive only a short distance before the tire flattened and they were apprehended by Deputies.
Shortly thereafter, Ashton told his Sergeant that he had fired at the driver in fear for his safety and that of his partner, which he reiterated at a subsequent interview with internal affairs investigators. In between, Ashton had filled out a brief probable cause declaration, in which he stated, after just learning that he had struck the tire with his round, that he “fired at the rear tire…” Later, a Department investigator asserted that the position of the holes in the tire demonstrated that Ashton must have shot the tire long after the vehicle had passed him. Based upon Ashton’s alleged contradictory statements, the assessment of the investigator, and some superficial interviews of supposedly percipient witnesses, the Department chose to demote Ashton from Deputy II to Deputy I for dishonesty and for improperly shooting at a fleeing vehicle. At the time of the Department’s action, Ashton was a seven year veteran with an impeccable record.
Ashton was represented by Bill Hadden of Silver, Hadden & Silver at his Civil Service hearing, during which the defense case focused on the proper analysis of the physical evidence and the ability of the various witnesses to perceive the events related to the shooting. A criminalist for the County of San Bernardino testified that no conclusion could be drawn as to whether the tire had been shot from the front or the rear, specifically repudiating the analysis of the Department’s less-qualified investigator. Moreover, detailed cross-examination of the percipient witnesses by Hadden demonstrated that some of the witnesses on which the Department had placed reliance either had a poor, belated or non-existent view of the incident. The testimony of Ashton’s fellow Deputy specifically placed Ashton at the right front passenger tire at the time she heard Ashton’s gun discharge, an account that was totally consistent with that of Ashton’s. There was no credible testimony at the hearing to show that Ashton ever fired at the vehicle after it had passed him.
As to the alleged contradictory statements, Ashton testified that he wrote the probable cause declaration shortly after being advised that he actually had struck the tire, and had not meant to indicate that he had aimed and shot at the tire.
Hadden argued to the Commission that neither the physical evidence nor the winesses supported the Department’s position, and that Ashton’s statement regarding the probable cause declaration were entirely reasonable and believable under the circumstances, especially in light of Ashton’s proven track record of integrity with the Department.
The Commission agreed, finding that the Department did not sustain its burden of proof on any charge. The physical evidence, the Commission held, did not establish that Ashton had fired from the rear, and the credible witnesses who testified at the hearing supported Ashton’s view of the events. The Commission’s decision specifically noted that Ashton was an extremely believable witness, and exonerated him of all charges. Ashton has now been reinstated to his former position with restoration of all lost wages and benefits.
Ashton was elated with the outcome and relieved that his protracted ordeal was finally over. “I never thought I had done anything wrong,” he said, “and I’m grateful that the Legal Defense Fund gave me all the resources to prove it.”