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Tuesday, Mar 04 2014 09:29 PM

Depositions reveal deputy misunderstood Sheriff's Office driving policies

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    John Swearengin walks out of the downtown courtroom after his arraignment in October 2012 for two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence in connection with the deaths of Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley. Swearengin pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for both victims and was sentenced to 480 hours of community service on Aug. 14, 2014.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

The Kern County sheriff's deputy criminally charged in connection with the deaths of two pedestrians was mistaken about parts of the Sheriff's Office's driving policies and procedures, according to a deposition provided to The Californian Tuesday.

Under questioning Feb. 18 by civil attorneys for the victims' families, Deputy John Swearengin said it's necessary to call for permission before turning on lights and siren -- going Code 3 -- when responding to an emergency. He told the attorneys he couldn't remember who had taught him that, but it's something he'd been told multiple times.

The deposition says Swearengin also said he was trained that he could drive above the posted speed limit, depending on road conditions, even if he hadn't initiated Code 3.

Both those statements are inaccurate.

In a deposition held about a month before Swearengin's, sheriff's Lt. Lance Grimes said there's no requirement for deputies to request permission to initiate a Code 3 response. In fact, he told attorneys he's not aware of any law enforcement agencies where permission is needed to go Code 3.

Grimes, questioned as an expert on the Sheriff's Office's driving policies, agreed it's county policy that speeds above the posted speed limits are rarely necessary or justified. Deputies who have not initiated Code 3 -- with certain exceptions-- are subject to the same driving laws, including following the posted speed limit, he said in the deposition.

The depositions were obtained following the settlement Friday in which the county will pay $4.8 and $4 million to the families of Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, respectively. Hiler, 24, and Jolley, 30, were pushing a motorcycle across Norris Road about 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 16, 2011 when Swearengin struck them while driving his patrol vehicle well above the speed limit.

Swearengin, 36, was traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone, according to a California Highway Patrol investigation. He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and is scheduled to go to trial Monday.

In the civil case, attorney Thomas Brill of the Law Offices of Young & Nichols represented Jolley's family, and David K. Cohn of Chain | Cohn | Stiles represented Hiler's fiancee and two young sons.

Many of Swearengin's answers in the 288-page deposition are variations on "I don't know." He said he didn't look at his speedometer and doesn't know how fast he was traveling. He didn't know if there were more pedestrians on Friday and Saturday nights in the area of Oildale he normally patroled than on other nights. And he wasn't sure if his actions led to the deaths of Hiler and Jolley.

Dec. 16, 2011 was a Friday.

Swearengin was responding to a report of grand theft auto as he sped west on Norris the night of the crash. He said in the deposition he believed he had the authority to exceed the speed limit without his lights and siren on due to road conditions and the call he was responding to.

"The road was clear, sir, and I was going to protect the public, sir," he said in the deposition.

There was some discussion regarding a 44-ounce drink someone bought Swearengin at a convenience store earlier that evening. The drink was larger than the 32-ounce one he usually buys, and he'd previously told CHP investigators it was in the way when he grabbed his radio to go Code 3.

"And I don't know if it slipped, I fumbled it, but I dropped the microphone," the deposition says Swearengin told the attorneys. "It went in the area between, like, the console and the drink, and so I looked down for a moment to retrieve the microphone."

When he looked back up he saw the motorcycle and one person, he says in the deposition. It wasn't until he got out of his patrol vehicle after the crash that he realized he'd struck two people.

He realized immediately Hiler was dead.

"It was bad, sir," he said to one of the attorney's questioning him.

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