By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – The Lewis County prosecutor has found Phillip A. Pinotti wasn’t trying run down a court security officer with his car last month, but also that it wasn’t criminal for the officer to fire his gun at Pinotti who was attempting to escape arrest on a misdemeanor warrant.
It was Dec. 16 when 22-year-old Pinotti was being handcuffed at the end of a hearing in Centralia Municipal Court, that he slipped away from the court security officer and ran to the next block where his car was parked.
Phillip A. Pinotti,file photo
Pinotti’s Subaru either lurched forward or it didn’t, before he put it in reverse, drove backwards at a high rate of speed, and fled the area.
Centralia Court Security Officer Steve Howard fired one shot breaking the driver’s side window, saying he was was in fear for his safety, that the car was being used as a weapon. Pinotti survived, he wasn’t hit with the bullet, only sprayed with fragments of glass.
Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer who evaluated all the law enforcement reports on the events of that day indicated it’s not clear if the car lurched forward or not.
“That’s a good question,” Meyer said this morning. “Pinotti says it didn’t, Howard says it did.”
“I’m not saying either one is wrong, it’s perception.”
Prosecutors this morning dropped a first-degree assault charge against Pinotti; they reduced it to obstructing.
“We reached the conclusion yesterday there was no intent on the part of Mr. Pinotti to injure the officer,” Meyer said. “The intent was to escape.”
The Adna resident who is free on bail is scheduled to go before a judge again next week and plead guilty to obstructing, third-degree escape and tampering with evidence.
Lawyers on the two sides agree on how much time they will recommend he should be locked up, Lewis County Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Brad Meagher said.
Meyer also concluded yesterday that Howard’s use of lethal force was legal under the laws of the state of Washington and that no charges would be filed against him.
The discharge of Howard’s weapon was investigated by the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office.
It has been customary for officer-involved shootings in Lewis County to be investigated by a multi-county shooting review team, that includes members of the sheriff’s office. And customary for the county prosecutor to review the findings and issue a decision.
Meyer said he found Howard’s actions were covered by the statute, 9A.16.040, which addresses justifiable uses of deadly force by a peace officer.
Officer Howard has a limited commission and handles courtroom security for the city. The retired California Highway Patrol officer been working for the city for just short of four months when the incident occurred. He was placed on administrative leave pending the results of the shooting investigation.
Centralia Police Department Chief Bob Berg announced this morning that now that Meyer is finished with his part, an internal use of force review board will be convened.
A review panel consisting of command personnel from the Centralia Police Department and outside law enforcement will provide their findings and recommendations to the chief of police, who will decide of Howard’s actions were consistent with department policies.
“I am pleased that the first part of this investigation has been completed and await the findings and recommendations of the review panel,” Chief Berg stated in his news release.
Howard could be back on the job before the panel’s work is done, according to Berg. He can return once certain once administrative requirements have been met, according to Berg.
Separately, Meagher said the charges would be reduced for Pinotti’s four friends, accused of helping him get away and hide from police. Because Pinotti’s charge is not a felony, their charges become non-felony, he said.
While previous officer-involved shootings have been investigated by a multi-jurisdictional team, the sheriff’s office was the only agency involved in this instance, according to Meyer. The same investigation provided the information for evaluation of charges for both Pinotti and for Howard.
Meyer said he was given a presentation on Friday of what detectives found, and then yesterday he issued a letter to Police Chief Berg regarding Howard.
The 16-page memo includes summaries from eight individuals who were interviewed, plus Berg, Howard and Pinotti. Meyer said a lot of people didn’t see the entire event.
Much of the document consists of Meyer’s legal analysis and ends with his conclusion.
“This office’s role is not to determine if this chain of events could have or should have been avoided,” Meyer wrote. “Nor is it to determine how another law enforcement officer would have reacted in the same scenario.
“Rather, the role of this office is to determine if, under the law, Officer Howard should be charged with a crime.
Meyer looked over RCW 9A16.040 and concluded no charges would be filed against Howard, given that RCW 9A16.040(3) applied.
Part three reads: “A public officer or peace officer shall not be held criminally liable for using deadly force without malice and with a good faith belief that such act is justifiable pursuant to this section.”
In closing, the prosecutor noted he was not authorizing the release of any evidence in the matter, as it may be used in Pinotti’s case.
In his facts, Meyer adds to information already released. He writes that after Pinotti got into his car, he locked the door. He adds that Officer Howard gave repeated commands to Pinotti to stop and surrender.
He adds that Pinotti and other witnesses indicate Howard struck the driver’s side window with his drawn firearm, but Howard does not remember doing that.
Pinotti stated he simply put the vehicle in reverse and backed down Maple Street. Howard told detectives the car lurched toward him.
“What is not clear is how far forward the vehicle is believed to have traveled,” Meyer wrote.
Chief Berg previously said there were just two cars parked outside The Chronicle. One was Pinotti’s, and in front of that, was a vehicle belonging to Centralia attorney J.P. Enbody, according to Meyer.
Enbody was allowed to drive away before the sheriff’s detectives arrived on the scene, but detectives were able to look at photos that had been taken, according to Meyer.
The witnesses interviewed included four Chronicle employees three friends of Pinotti, who are accused of subsequently helping him hide, plus Sarah Gee who had given a ride to court that morning to one of the three.
Only Officer Howard spoke of the car lurching forward. He described it as “jerked forward.”
“Officer Howard said ‘as soon as I hear the car start my mind kinda shifted gears. I go if he starts the car and starts driving I’m going to get hit by the car. I pulled my weapon. I’m pulling my weapon and I’m yelling at him, don’t f****** do it,” Meyer wrote.
Meyer’s memo doesn’t indicate anywhere how far from the car Howard was, only that Howard had taken a position on the “driver’s side front.”
Pinotti’s statement describes Pinotti as telling detectives he sees Officer Howard, “the bailiff, security guard, whatever, is coming around the front of the hood and I see him raise his firearm at me, and states don’t do it, or I’ll f****** shoot you.”
Pinotti said he froze, then his flight instincts took over; saying he just threw it in gear in reverse and hit the gas as hard as he could.
Pinotti thought Howard had swung his gun twice into his window breaking it; he didn’t hear a gunshot and didn’t know the gun was fired until he spoke with others later, according to Meyer.
Chief Berg’s news release issued today takes the position that Officer Howard fired one shot at the vehicle “as it lurched towards him.”
Read Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer’s analysis of Officer Howard’s shooting here
For background, read “Bail set at $50,000 for Adna man arrested after getaway from court officer” from Friday December 19, 2014, here