New trial over a video game?

A code enforcement officer got in trouble with the law after a sales clerk at Target refused to give him a refund for a video game that was based on the movie "Cars" and didn't work in three computers.

More than a year later, his criminal case remains in limbo in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Jurors were not able to reach a verdict after a four-day trial last month, so the district attorney's office must decide whether it will retry the case, cut a deal or dismiss the misdemeanor charge against Steven Scott Sather.

Sather, 46, of Turlock is charged with impersonation of a public officer, a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for as long as six months in jail and fines of as much as $2,500.

He has been advised not to comment in detail because his case is pending. But he said he is frustrated with the slow pace of the legal process and his inab- ility to explain the situation to prosecutors who pressed charges.

"I have never been charged with anything in my life beyond a speeding ticket," Sather said.

The authorities contend Sather flashed a badge and threatened to arrest a store manager who was willing to give him a replacement video but no refund for a game that had been opened. It all happened on the Fourth of July in 2006, at midday, at Target on Countryside Drive in Turlock.

He no longer works for the county, but at the time he was a code enforcement officer for the Department of Environmental Resources.

That job gave Sather a badge and the power to inspect buildings to see whether they met health and safety codes, but no say over retail policies and no power to arrest suspected criminals.

Target employees called the Turlock police after the encounter with Sather, prompting an investigation that led to the sole misdemeanor charge.

According to a police report included in the court file, a store security camera shows Sather at a customer service counter, flashing his badge for about one second as he spoke with a manager and another employee.

Store employees told police Sather identified himself as a police officer three times and insisted that they were breaking the law by not giving him a full refund for a defective product.

They said Sather promised to return to the store in uniform, with handcuffs, to arrest the manager, who would offer only a replacement video or a game of equal value.

They said Sather demanded to see the store's business license, which was posted on the wall, and eventually left, his family in tow. Sather used a personal check to purchase some other items in the electronics department, so a police officer tracked him down at home.

Sather told the officer Target was breaking the law by knowingly selling a defective product that didn't work on different computers.

He said he called the company listed on the packaging and was told that it had no record of manufacturing the game. He said he wanted a refund, because a replacement copy probably wouldn't work.

Sather denied making any threats about returning to Target in uniform with handcuffs, the police report says, but admitted making a comment about returning to the store to arrest employees for selling defective products.

The officer took down the information and forwarded his report to prosecutors who initiated the case.

Defense attorney John Hillenbrand tried to persuade Judge Marie Silveira to dismiss the case before trial. In legal papers, he argued Sather could not be convicted of impersonating a public officer because he was employed as a code enforcement officer.

In response, Deputy District Attorney Mark Girdner argued that the defense was playing with semantics, because the law refers to sworn officers who have the power to make arrests.

The case proceeded to trial but ended with a hung jury Sept. 14. Sather is scheduled to return to court Oct. 19 for further proceedings.

Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said his office is still evaluating the case, and the resolution could be anything from a fine to jail time.

He said such impersonation cases are rare, adding that members of the public should ask to see a photo identification card if they have doubts about someone who claims to be an officer.

"Nobody should be allowed to use a badge unless they're a police officer," Goold said. "Otherwise, how can the public trust it when they see it?"

Hillenbrand said the case is silly and has consumed a lot of the court's time and should not be taken to trial a second time. He said the matter could be resolved if Sather were allowed to plead no contest to an infraction and pay a fine.

"It's a customer service situation that went awry," Hillenbrand said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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