The arrest of a man suspected of driving a vehicle into a large group of recruits with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — injuring 25 of them, five critically — has taken a confusing turn.
Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of attempted murder of peace officers. On Thursday afternoon, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva called the collision a “deliberate act” and suggested Gutierrez had intentionally rammed into the recruits as they were on a morning training run.
But just hours later, Gutierrez was released under a California state law that authorizes law enforcement to release arrestees from custody without first being arraigned if there are insufficient grounds to make a criminal complaint.
Gutierrez's arrest was deemed a detention, jail records show, and prosecutors say they have not received a case to review.
Tiffiny Blacknell, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney's office, said in a statement Friday that the prosecutors’ office has been in contact with the Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol, which is leading the investigation into the crash alongside the sheriff's homicide unit.
“They advised our office late [Thursday] that they would not be presenting a case at this time and that they would be releasing the suspect," Blacknell said.
Legal experts and lawyers specializing in criminal defense say the case shines a light on the balancing act of bringing charges while following criminal procedure — including fact-gathering and constitutional rights.
Many expressed confidence that criminal charges eventually will be filed; the question, they said, is what can be substantiated by evidence that proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
"Maybe in the eyes of the public, it seems like, 'Oh, my God; this person got out,' " said Lisa Zhao Liu, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, adding that some might be quick to blame the district attorney's office. "It’s most likely the fact that the district attorney’s office has not been presented with sufficient evidence by the arresting agency to prove specific charges at the moment, but this can change as new evidence is presented.”
In most circumstances, prosecutors have 48 hours to arraign a person in custody, said Louis Shapiro, a well-known defense lawyer in California. That is because a defendant has the right to a fair and speedy arraignment and trial.
In a case like this, in which a suspect was arrested on a Wednesday, charges need to be brought by Friday — unless the person was bailed out, he said. An arraignment or court appearance can be delayed up to 72 hours if weekends or holidays fall immediately after an arrest, Shapiro said.
“But forensic evidence and technical data from the car takes time to gather and analyze and have an expert write a report,” he said. “This isn’t like he shot a gun toward someone. It is more complex, and the car data is vital even if you think you know the motive.”
Laurie Levenson, a professor of criminal law at Loyola Law School, said that Villanueva's use of the word "deliberate" was "pretty vague." And ultimately, it’s up to prosecutors to look at the evidence and the law.
"What we need to know is: Did this individual have, in the language of the law, the specific intent? Did he have the purpose to run over these recruits?" Levenson said. "That's the question that has to be answered."
Experts said that examples of specific intent in an attempted murder case, such as how the suspect in the South Whittier crash was initially arrested, could include evidence that the individual hated the Sheriff’s Department, had a bad history with the department or had scouted information about the recruits and their training schedule ahead of time. There is so far no public indication that such evidence exists in this case.
The department could have presented lesser charges to the D.A.'s office, Dmitry Gorin, a former prosecutor, said. But that could be prickly.
“If they undercharge it, he may plea open immediately and avoid a more serious charge,” Gorin said.
Speaking Friday at Salazar Park in East Los Angeles, Sheriff-elect Robert Luna would not discuss the investigation and referred questions about it to Villanueva, but he said the incident was “absolutely on my mind.”
The recruits, Luna said, were hurt while working toward “the purpose of serving our community.” He offered his prayers to those who were injured, their families and the staff who were instructing them.
It is not uncommon for people to be released from custody, lawyers said.
"Often people get arrested, released and then rearrested,” Shapiro said, noting that most often occurs when the prosecutor asks for additional investigation. "But here, the investigators have preempted that decision knowing they need more information."
Investigators are continuing to gather and examine evidence against Gutierrez, but law enforcement cannot hold a suspect in custody for more than 48 hours without presenting the case to prosecutors, said Sgt. Gerardo Magos, an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson.
Once investigators have built a case, they plan to re-arrest Gutierrez and present it to the L.A. County district attorney’s office, Magos said.
Prosecutors have at least one year to file misdemeanor charges from the date of an incident and three years to file most felony charges, Liu said. Violent felony crimes have longer statutes of limitations, and some — such as Penal Code 187 PC (murder) — have no statute of limitations.
Times staff writer Gregory Yee contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.