Update, 11:30 a.m. Thursday: Alameda County prosecutors moved to dismiss their own case Thursday morning against an Oakland police officer charged with illegal sex with a minor.
It signals an end to the most serious Alameda County prosecutions of a group of law enforcement officers accused of sexually exploiting the teenage daughter of an Oakland police dispatcher. The case spanned six Bay Area jurisdictions, spawned a major upheaval in leadership of the Oakland Police Department and led to the filing of half a dozen lawsuits, most of which are still pending.
The latest move to drop charges against OPD Officer Giovanni LoVerde follows Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jon Rolefson’s recent dismissal of related charges against two former law enforcement officers.
Prosecutor Sabrina Farrell said in court that the charges against LoVerde — felony oral copulation with a minor — had facts similar to the case against former Contra Costa sheriff’s Deputy Ricardo Perez, which Rolefson dismissed Wednesday. The judge ruled prosecutors failed to prove Perez should have known the teen who went by the name Celeste Guap was underage.
“In Wednesday’s ruling on the 995 motion in the case against Ricardo Perez, the judge articulated his analysis of the law,” Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick, who serves as the DA’s spokeswoman, wrote in an emailed response to a request for comment. She added that the office disagrees with Rolefson’s rulings.
“There exists a conflict in the law interpreting the criminal statutes that govern the crimes charged, and we have determined that we will seek an appellate remedy,” Drenick said.
LoVerde, who was accused of having oral sex with now 20-year-old Jasmine Abuslin in an apartment entryway near Lake Merritt when she was 17, said after the hearing that the dismissal was “long overdue.”
“I had the utmost confidence that this would be the result,” he said. “Unfortunately, it took a year and a half to get here. I am happy. I look forward to getting back and serving the people of Oakland.”
LoVerde said he’s been on leave since he was charged.
His defense attorneys cast LoVerde as the victim of a case driven by a salacious scandal.
“When you google his name, all this information comes up,” attorney Jyoti Rekhi said. “The allegations were unfounded and that should have been properly processed before a case was filed, and a case shouldn’t have been filed.”
Defense attorney Michael Cardoza said Oakland “really should be ashamed” for paying $989,000 to settle a civil claim brought on behalf of Abuslin.
“She was working the streets,” he said. “It was her choice. We understand that at one time she was underage when she started, but her mother was a dispatcher for the Oakland Police Department. You mean to tell me the mother didn’t know what was going on in this situation?”
Similar lawsuits are pending against Contra Costa and Alameda counties, as well as Richmond, San Francisco and Livermore.
Abuslin’s testimony at preliminary hearings for former Oakland police Officer Brian Bunton and Perez was both graphic and grueling, with Abuslin describing various sexually explicit electronic messages swapped with the peace officers. In Perez’s case, the former deputy repeatedly coaxed her to send naked pictures of herself, and he repeatedly sent her photos of his penis, according to Abuslin’s testimony that referenced the messages.
Her civil attorney, John Burris, said Wednesday that repeating that experience was taking a toll.
“It causes her to have a loss of faith, if you will, in the judicial system and really raises question in her own mind as to whether or not it’s worth it,” he said.
Prosecutors made their decision to scrap the charges before a preliminary hearing for LoVerde with that in mind, according to the district attorney’s office.
“We are always mindful of how difficult it has been for the victim in these matters to testify in open court about her exploitation, and we made today’s decision in close consultation with her,” Drenick wrote.
There is one criminal prosecution related to Abuslin remaining. Former OPD Officer Terryl Smith is charged with five misdemeanors for illegally accessing and furnishing confidential law enforcement records. The case is scheduled to go to trial early next year.
Original post, 7:10 p.m. Wednesday: An Alameda County Superior Court judge has dismissed criminal charges against a second defendant in a widespread law enforcement sexual exploitation case involving dozens of Bay Area peace officers and the teenage daughter of an Oakland police dispatcher.
Prosecutors had charged former Contra Costa County sheriff’s Deputy Ricardo Perez with felony sex with a minor and two misdemeanor counts of lewd acts in a public place. The charges were based on a series of encounters between Perez and the now 20-year-old Jasmine Abuslin, also known as Celeste Guap, in the summer of 2015, when she was 17 years old.
But Judge Jon Rolefson ruled from the bench Wednesday that the prosecution had not met its burden to prove Perez was guilty of either charge.
“There’s nothing in this set of facts that he knew or should have known [Abuslin’s age],” Rolefson said in court. “The burden is on the prosecution to disprove that lack of knowledge. They did not do that.”
As for the lewd conduct in a public place, Rolefson found prosecutors failed to prove a likelihood that anyone who could be offended would be at the dark spot off rural Fish Ranch Road in Alameda County, where Perez allegedly drove Abuslin to have sex.
“There’s no reasonable expectation that someone would be present to see it and be offended,” Rolefson said.
Perez’s defense attorney, Joe Motta, said his client couldn’t talk about the case because he’s still a defendant in one of five lawsuits brought by Abuslin against Contra Costa County, Alameda County, San Francisco, Richmond and Livermore. Oakland settled Abuslin’s claim for $989,000 in June.
Abuslin’s testimony at a preliminary hearing in the case against Perez described their initial contact on Facebook that quickly turned to sexually graphic messaging and swapping explicit naked photos. Perez sent several photographs of his naked penis to Abuslin between July 2015 and April 2016, according to the testimony and exhibits at the preliminary hearing. Abuslin, though sometimes she protested, sent several naked, sexually explicit photographs of herself to the former deputy, sometimes while he appeared to be on duty.
“Mr. Perez did nothing to exploit this young woman,” Motta said. Abuslin appears to have been sexually trafficked since she was 12 years old, he said, but the prosecution didn’t investigate her earlier life and what led her to cultivate relationships with so many law enforcement officers.
“By the time she was 17 or 18, she’s been a one-woman wrecking ball,” Motta said. “She’s destroyed lives.”
The dismissal of charges against Perez comes less than a month after Rolefson tossed out charges against former Oakland police Officer Brian Bunton for allegedly trading information on prostitution stings for sex with Abuslin, who was over 18 and working in the sex trade at the time.
The fizzling criminal prosecutions are in contrast to the major scandal that inspired them and precipitated a succession of police chief resignations in Oakland last year.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the dismissal Wednesday of charges against Perez.
A spokeswoman called the dismissal of charges against Bunton in September “disappointing.”
“We firmly stand behind the criminal charges that we filed and wholeheartedly believe that the evidence supports the charges,” the office said in a statement last month.
But Stanford Law School Professor Robert Weisberg said there’s a difference between a major scandal in the news and criminal charges before a judge.
“If it is a highly morally fraught case, as these are, and the allegations — even if they’re just allegations — are very, very stigmatizing, then the case is going to look worse for the defendants at the very start because it’s all a big part of this scandal,” Weisberg said.
But as the cases proceed through the criminal system, they separate from each other and from the larger scandal, allowing defense attorneys to focus on the weaknesses of charges against individual officers.
“It turns out that the evidence is much more equivocal once you have lawyers homing in on the specific allegations against the specific individual, and you really stick to the facts about that particular individual rather than some general sense that he is part of some wider scandal or scheme,” Weisberg said. “The cases look weaker when they’re looked at with great scrutiny on an individual basis.”
It’s possible, Weisberg said, that pending civil claims will fare better than the criminal charges, due in part to a lower standard of proof in civil cases.
Civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents Abuslin in those cases, agreed.
“The civil case is one place that you can get stuff done,” he said. “You don’t have the similar constraints that you have in criminal cases that I think prevents jurors and judges from really objectively evaluating police officers’ conduct if it can result in jail or prison terms.”
He said Abuslin’s hours-long testimony in preliminary hearings concerning Bunton and Perez was difficult for her, and she’s considering whether it’s worth it.
“It’s very, very painful for her to put herself out like that and offer testimony and then to have it sort of rejected, if you will, later,” Burris said. “It’s been an eye-opener for her and certainly raises questions about whether she should go forward in any of these further criminal cases.”
She’s expected to repeat that process in Alameda County Superior Court Thursday morning, when Oakland police Officer Giovanni LoVerde is scheduled for a preliminary hearing. LoVerde is charged with felony oral copulation with a minor stemming from an alleged meeting near Lake Merritt when Abuslin was 17.
According to charging documents, Abuslin “orally copulated suspect [LoVerde] in a public area, an apartment entryway.”