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Caught on tape: Phoenix DUI officer's tactics under investigation

Phoenix DUI officer's tactics under investigation
Posted at 4:19 PM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 21:25:08-05

PHOENIX — Phoenix's most senior DUI motorcycle officer is under internal investigation after ABC15 uncovered a video of him explaining how to manipulate police reports to disadvantage defense attorneys in criminal cases.

The new allegations against Officer Michael McGillis come a week after ABC15 reported on mounting complaints of rudeness and excessive force against him.

McGillis's bodycam caught his discussion with a sergeant and other officers after he arrested Mariah Valenzuela in January 2020. Valenzuela is suing the City of Phoenix alleging McGillis violated her civil rights.

In the video, McGillis explained why officers should list passengers as "victims" not "witnesses" in all DUI cases, so they would be "state witnesses" instead of "defense witnesses."

"They [defense attorneys] don't get to interview them [passengers considered victims]," McGillis said, "and they don't get to conjure up a B.S. story altogether."

“All your passengers are victims,” McGillis concluded to a nearby sergeant who took out paper and started jotting notes. You can watch the unedited exchange in the viewer below.

Raw Video Officer McGillis explains victims on DUI report

“When I watched that, the first thing I thought was shady police work,” said Aaron Black, a defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases.

McGillis is the department’s most senior DUI motor officer, and he processes hundreds of suspected impaired drivers annually. McGillis also appeared to take his own advice. ABC15 obtained a 2019 report, authored by McGillis, where all three adult passengers were listed as victims during a DUI investigation that did not involve a crash.

"My overall impression of this guy is that he shouldn't be a police officer," said criminal defense attorney James Palestini.

Multiple criminal defense attorneys told ABC15 misclassifying people in a car during a DUI case could impact defendants' rights to fair trials.

“You essentially are violating the person's constitutional rights,” said defense attorney Caroline Aeed. “You're interfering with witnesses that are part of the investigation.”

Defense attorneys can interview witnesses to learn how the driver was behaving on the road and how the officer handled a traffic stop, sobriety tests, and an arrest.

The defense can call witnesses to testify regardless of whether the prosecution does.

Victims, however, get special protections from the prosecutor's office. Victim's rights limit defense attorneys’ access to them.

The attorneys said Arizona law would allow passengers under 15 years old to be considered victims or people who were involved in a DUI crash; however, any other passengers would be solely witnesses, they said.

Officer McGillis's theory on DUI reporting seems to be in opposition to Phoenix police policy. Operations Order 6.4 said, “Names of witnesses/occupants will be listed in the IR [Incident Report’s] Other Persons section.”

After ABC15 sent a Phoenix police spokeswoman a video clip of McGillis speaking and a copy of the police policy, she responded that McGillis was now under investigation by the Phoenix Police Department’s Professional Standards Bureau. Officer McGillis remains on regular duty.

The Phoenix City Prosecutor’s Office would not comment on specific cases involving McGillis.

“The City Prosecutor's Office does not oversee the police department or direct police officers in the performance of their duties,” a spokesman said in an email to ABC15.

The prosecutor’s office added victims are “ultimately designated by prosecutors,” but the office made no indication how often those prosecutors deviated from officer McGillis’s designation.

Got a news tip? Email ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius at Melissa.Blasius@abc15.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.