Woman sues, saying Patterson police chief's grudge prompted false charges

Tammy Smith, 50, of Patterson, claims Patterson Police Chief Tyrone Spencer had her charged with a misdemeanor because of a grudge against her private investigator husband.
Tammy Smith, 50, of Patterson, claims Patterson Police Chief Tyrone Spencer had her charged with a misdemeanor because of a grudge against her private investigator husband. Modesto Bee

Tammy Smith thinks a decade-old dispute with Patterson's police chief prompted an obstruction of justice charge that was thrown out of court, yet remains the subject of a $6.25 million lawsuit.

She recently won round one when Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge John G. Whiteside dismissed a misdemeanor charge because two officers admitted that they initially did not consider Smith's behavior, after a night of fun at the Apricot Fiesta two years ago, to be a crime.

Smith had been accused of putting her hands on an officer as she begged him not to arrest her son, an Iraq war veteran who sometimes became belligerent with authority figures, for being drunk and disorderly.

When her case came to trial July 16, the officers admitted that they did not charge Smith with a crime until Police Chief Tyrone Spencer sent word that the case deserved a second look.

After several hours of testimony, the judge tossed the case out before 12 jurors had their chance. Whiteside said he did not approve of Smith's behavior, but didn't see a crime worthy of deliberation, either.

"The court does not believe that any reasonable jury, under the circumstances in this case, could or would convict the defendant," Whiteside said, according to a transcript provided by Smith's defense attorney.

Case dismissed ... but that was just the beginning.

Smith, a dispatcher with the Mountain View Police Department (near Palo Alto) for more than 20 years, said she wished she could have given the judge a clearer picture of the incident, but held her tongue out of respect for the court.

In a lawsuit, Smith accuses Spencer of holding a grudge against her because her husband, a police officer turned private investigator, helped exonerate a man Spencer tried to fire a decade ago.

Chief: Old conflict unrelated

Back then, Spencer suspected that Tammy Smith abused her position as a dispatcher to tap into a police database and find the address of a key witness in the termination case, according to legal papers.

Husband Johnny Smith said his client brought him to the home of a witness, a reserve officer who lived with his parents. An investigation came up empty, but Tammy Smith said she complained about Spencer at a City Council meeting and again at a town hall meeting sponsored by former Stanislaus County Sheriff Les Weidman.

Spencer said he has no idea why Smith thinks he harbors a grudge, adding that the police considered only one factor, her behavior, when they forwarded papers to the district attorney's office recommending that a criminal charge be filed.

He said the police reports -- which describe a ranting woman intervening in the officer's investigation -- tell the real story.

"The report speaks for itself, regardless of when it was written," Spencer said. "Either the incident happened or it didn't happen."

The incident after the Apricot Fiesta began in a parking lot at Mil's Bar and Grill on June 2, 2006, when an officer told Wayne Smith to get rid of a beer and he responded by chugging from a plastic cup.

Tammy Smith told the officers she would take her son home, insisting that he would not drive. The officers followed on foot as the Smiths and several friends walked away, but called for backup from a nearby patrol car after someone in the crowd screamed an obscenity.

Wayne Smith, 25, and family friend George Denton, 59, were arrested and placed in the back of the patrol car. In a report written three weeks later, an officer said he had to use a wristlock to push Tammy Smith out of the way.

Wayne Smith was released without charges, and apologized to the officers the next day. Johnny Smith wrote complaint letters to the Sheriff's Department, which oversees the Patterson police, and to the Fiesta board. Denton pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and paid a $500 fine.

Tammy Smith said she received no notice when the district attorney's office filed charges months later. But her boss knew about the case, because Spencer sent two memos about the incident to the police chief in Mountain View.

Spencer also sent e-mails to the district attorney's office, asking about the status of the case, according to documents Tammy Smith obtained through her lawyer. She shared copies of police reports and Spencer's memos to her boss with The Bee.

Tammy Smith declined to settle her case by pleading no contest to an infraction and paying a $50 fine. She said she can't let the matter drop because there's nothing worse than a dishonest cop.

"When I saw the police report, I was like, this is so many lies, I can't believe this is happening," she said, noting that a conviction would have jeopardized her job.

Defense: Unusual involvement

After presenting his case, Deputy District Attorney Hans Hjertonsson argued that there is nothing wrong with writing reports after the fact, because a more experienced person, such as Spencer, could look at a situation and see a basis for a crime that officers on the scene overlooked.

The judge sided with defense attorney Ruben Villalobos, who argued that there was no case to file, let alone send to a jury. Later, the defense attorney said it is unusual for a police chief to insert himself into such a small case. "I think the fault lies, clearly, with the chief," Villalobos said.

Now, the case that began with defiant beer-chugging is heading into overtime.

Tammy Smith, Wayne Smith and Denton filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno last summer, alleging that Spencer and 13 officers infringed upon their civil rights.

'I want Tyrone Spencer out'

Among the claims outlined in legal papers:

  • Officers taunted Wayne Smith, who was honorably discharged from the military after fighting in the battle of Fallujah, saying he didn't do anything in Iraq. This came after Tammy Smith told the officers that her son had some issues stemming from his service.
  • Officers cuffed Denton's hands behind his back, rather than the front as requested, and slammed a patrol car door on his legs three times. This came after Denton told the officers he had limited mobility due to numerous back surgeries.
  • Officers summoned Denton to the police station months later, where he was arrested and placed in a patrol car so he could be transported to jail. The officers said Denton had skipped his court appearances and was wanted on a bench warrant, but Denton had resolved his case and paid a fine. The officers released Denton when they couldn't find a warrant.
  • A lawyer hired by the county is defending Spencer and the officers. In legal papers, attorney Dan Farrar argues that the officers acted in good faith as they discharged their duties. A trial is scheduled next May.

    The lawsuit contains 16 allegations against Spencer and his officers, ranging from assault and battery to false imprisonment to interference with a contract. In addition to monetary damages, Tammy Smith wants an order that prohibits Spencer from making any false representations to her employer.

    Does she really think the misdemeanor charge is worth more than $6 million? She won't say. But she thinks some kind of discipline is in order.

    "I want Tyrone Spencer out," she said.

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