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Imbalance of Justice: Confusion, contention about police assault cases

Posted at 8:01 PM, Jun 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-22 10:50:12-04

PHOENIX — After reviewing more than 40 cases alleging assaults against police officers, the ABC15 Investigators are finding more questions about disparities in charging decisions at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

The ABC15 Investigators have been asking new Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell about when it's appropriate to charge someone with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against a peace officer. It's a class 2 felony that can send you to prison for a decade or more.

“It's not simply the pointing or brandishing of a gun,” Mitchell said. “It has to involve, if there is no injury, the intent to put somebody else in reasonable apprehension of their lives. So you have to prove the intent.”

Mitchell did not pursue the high-level charge against retired state prison director Charles Ryan.

Ryan, a former top state official, was accused of pointing a gun at Tempe police during a confrontation at his home in January.

But there are questions about how MCAO has used this charge against other people. Earlier this month, the ABC15 Investigators showed you two cases that were charged. The defendants had guns but were not accused of taking aim at officers on the scene.

Also, Mitchell admits at least one case from 2020 was overcharged as a class 2 felony. The case involved a shoplifting suspect who was accused of using a pen as a "dangerous instrument" causing an officer a minor hand injury.

"You have shown that for the first time, look, we have a Ducey appointee, who is wealthy and powerful and being treated differently than everybody else," said Julie Gunnigle, a Democrat running for county attorney against Mitchell.

"The public has no faith that there is actually equal justice under the law with the way this office has been operating," Gunnigle said.

Mitchell says she dropped the charge in the pen case, and she's moving to fire the prosecutor from that case, April Sponsel, as part of a larger investigation into mishandling cases.

Another county attorney candidate, Republican Gina Godbehere takes issue with Mitchell's interpretation of the aggravated assault law in these cases. Godbehere said it is causing confusion.

"There are questions with law enforcement," said Godbehere. "There are questions amongst the defense bar and defendants who have had their cases treated differently, and there are questions with the line attorneys at the Maricopa County Attorney's Office."

The ABC15 Investigators pulled dozens of court files looking at cases from 2020 and 2021 where people were charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon against an officer. Nearly all the cases involved the allegation that one or more officers felt threatened, but none were actually injured. The other circumstances and alleged weapons varied widely including vehicles, guns, a machete, a set of handcuffs, and even a shard of a glass bottle.

ABC15 sent questions about seven of these cases to the county attorney's office asking about disparities in charging decisions. Mitchell has a prosecution integrity unit that reviews cases for fairness, and ABC15 will let you know when we hear back on the seven cases.