Twenty-five recruits for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department got mowed down by a driver on Wednesday. Police arrested Nicholas Gutierrez for attempted murder almost immediately. Police investigators insist that they have probable cause and evidence to support those charges.
Late last night, however, Gutierrez walked out of jail — which is more than many of his victims can do, now and in at least one case for a lot longer than that.
Nicholas Joseph Gutierrez was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder on peace officers for Wednesday’s crash that injured 25 recruits, but jail records show he was released at 9:49 p.m. due to insufficient evidence a crime was committed.
“Due to the extreme complexity of the investigation, which includes ongoing interviews, video surveillance review, and additional evidence needed to be analyzed, homicide investigators have released Mr. Gutierrez from the Sheriff’s Department custody,” a news release from authorities said.
“I have no doubt that an in-depth investigation will confirm that Nicholas is a hard working young man who holds no animosity towards law enforcement, and this was an absolutely tragic accident,” Alexandra Kazarian, Gutierrez’s attorney, said in a statement to Eyewitness News.
The case was expected to be presented to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office on Friday, but Villanueva said on a cable news network that the suspect would be “provisionally” released as investigators worked to build a stronger case.
Conceptually and theoretically, this makes some sense. Police can only detain a suspect for 48 hours without charging him/her with a crime and offering an arraignment and a chance to make bail, although sometimes that can get extended over a weekend. That is a constitutional protection that applies in every jurisdiction, although the time limits may vary a bit.
However, it’s tough to understand what the issue is here. Perhaps they didn’t have enough evidence of motive for attempted murder charges, but at the least they have enough for two-dozen-plus counts of felony assault on law enforcement, for which the evidence is obvious. The penalty under California statute (PEN§245 (d)(1)) for that is between 3-5 years on each count. Charges can and often are upgraded from the initial arraignment as more evidence comes in, but suspects in mass assaults like this do not typically get released without any charges while law enforcement calculates its best cases against them.
Unless, of course, it takes place in the jurisdiction of LA County DA George Gascón. One has to wonder whether investigators worried that lower-level charges would allow Gascón and his team to quickly settle the case with a deal rather than press hard on more serious charges that will eventually come. That may be why the LASO is so concerned about proper “presentation” to prosecutors, even though they assert they have plenty of probable cause to charge Gutierrez with multiple counts of attempted murder:
Once investigators have built a case, they plan to arrest Gutierrez and present the case to the L.A. County district attorney’s office, Magos said.
“The evidence is there,” he said. “We just want to make sure it’s properly presented.”
Earlier Thursday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in an interview with NewsNation that investigators “have developed probable cause to believe it was intentional.”
“They went through an exhaustive interview process with everyone involved, with the video surveillance, the statements from the recruits, the physical evidence they have and what they got from the suspect himself, and they were able to form the opinion this was a deliberate act,” he told the news station.
Villanueva later confirmed to The Times there was probable cause to arrest the driver on suspicion of attempted murder because of evidence he deliberately ran into the recruits. But the sheriff did not provide further details, and his department has not yet presented the department’s case to the district attorney.
If the evidence is there, and the LASO has probable cause to charge him, why is Gutierrez walking free? None of the media outlets covering this mention Gascón by name, but this leaves the impression that the LASO — and likely other LA-area law enforcement agencies — have little trust in Gascón and the DA’s office these days. They seem to want a case so solid that Gascón cannot possibly deal it down without taking enormous political risks.
It’s unclear how long it will take to build such a case. What are the odds that Gutierrez, who is free and not on bail, will be around to arrest when they do?