San Francisco Police Officer Not Guilty in Landmark Use of Force Case

March 8, 2022
A jury acquitted San Francisco Police Officer Terrance Stangel of assault and battery charges after he struck a man with his baton during a 2019 domestic violence call.

A jury found San Francisco Police Officer Terrance Stangel not guilty of assault and battery charges he faced for striking a man with a baton while on duty in 2019, closing a chapter on a landmark police use-of-force case in the city.

The verdict came on what was the fourth day of deliberations after weeks of testimony from officers, experts, witnesses, Stangel and the alleged victim, Dacari Spiers.


Jurors said they were unable to reach consensus on a charge of assault under the color of authority, with nine jurors voting "not guilty" and three voting "guilty." Judge Teresa Caffese declared a mistrial on the fourth count, and prosecutors did not immediately announce whether they plan to refile that charge.

Stangel was the first known San Francisco officer to be criminally tried for allegations of excessive force while on duty.

He was acquitted of charges of battery involving serious bodily injury, assault with a deadly weapon and assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury — with an allegation that he did in fact cause great bodily injury. Stangel faced up to seven years behind bars, had he been convicted.

Upon the juror's reading of the third "not guilty" verdict, Stangel and his attorney, Nicole Pifari, jumped up and hugged each other, while spectators throughout the courtroom gasped or murmured cheers.

Pifari, who addressed reporters outside the courtroom shortly after the verdict was read, said the trial was based on a "garbage case" and the political motivations of progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who has made police accountability a central tenant of his administration.

"This is a matter that should have never ended up in front of a judge, let alone a jury," Pifari said. "At the end of the day, (Stangel) is a highly trained officer who did exactly what he was trained to do."

Rachel Marshall, a spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office, said the jurors' inability to reach a verdict on the fourth count showed that there were "issues of great concern."

"This case is a reminder of the many challenges, the uphill battle, to hold police accountable," Marshall said. Among these challenges, she said, was a tendency to criminalize victims and a lack of diversity on the jury, she said.

There were no Black members of the jury. Stangel is white, and Spiers is Black.

Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Spiers, said that despite the verdict, the trial was "a victory for our community to bring these types of cases to the jury. ... We have a long way to go to make our community safe from unnecessary police violence, and this trial was a huge step in the right direction," Briggs said.

The case stemmed from an incident on the evening of Oct. 6, 2019, when police received a domestic violence call about a man choking and dragging a woman on the street near Fisherman's Wharf.

Stangel and his partner, Officer Cuauhtemoc Martinez, approached Spiers and his then-girlfriend, Breonna Richard, touching off a confrontation that culminated with Stangel striking Spiers up to eight times with his baton, including at least five times while Spiers was on the ground.

Throughout the three weeks of testimony, prosecutors and defense attorneys laid out starkly different versions about who was the aggressor in the scuffle, whether Stangel followed his police training and whether Spiers had actually abused Richard that night before police arrived.

Spiers was never charged with a crime and was later awarded a $700,000 civil settlement from the city.

Both Stangel and Spiers took the stand during the trial. Stangel maintained his use of force was justified because Spiers was battering his partner, Martinez, when Stangel arrived.

Spiers said the officers didn't identify themselves and that he was never aggressive toward them.

Boudin, who was elected among a wave of progressive prosecutors across the country, vowed since the beginning of his campaign to hold officers accountable for wrongdoing. He is currently prosecuting five other officers in use-of-force cases, though none of the others have gone before juries yet.

During impassioned closing arguments last week, defense attorney Pifari called the case a "politically motivated prosecution," without mentioning Boudin's name.

Pifari said Stangel had jumped to the defense of Martinez, whom Pifari said was being "battered" by Spiers.

"All (Stangel) had to believe was that he or Martinez was in imminent danger of suffering bodily injury or being touched unlawfully," Pifari said, adding that Stangel immediately stopped the beating as soon as he could "neutralize the threat."

In the prosecution's closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Young said Stangel failed to give Spiers a reasonable command before he started beating him with the baton, and that he had multiple occasions to reassess the situation and to stop striking Spiers.

"Five strikes when he's lying on the ground, in the fetal position, writhing in pain, is proof beyond a reasonable doubt of assault and battery," Young said.

Young, who spoke to the jury after the verdict was read, said jurors felt Martinez had initiated the confrontation, used poor police tactics, and that Stangel was "confronted with a bad situation."

They also said the fact that Stangel didn't strike Spiers again after the officer held Spiers' legs down was enough reasonble doubt to whether Stangel used excessive force, Young said.

Lt. Tracy McCray, acting president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said the police union was "very relieved" at the verdict.

"Our jobs are very complex," she said. "Sometimes we're compelled to take action on limited information and make a split-second decisions that could have far-reaching consequences."

Stangel's case triggered the most visible rift to date between District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Police Chief Bill Scott, with pretrial testimony prompting Scott to pull out of an agreement that names Boudin's office the chief investigator in the police department's serious use-of-force cases.

Scott alleged that the District Attorney's office withheld from police evidence that would have been favorable to Stangel. Boudin fired back his own allegations that it was police who withheld evidence from prosecutors. A judge in a related civil case recently found that police had improperly kept evidence from Spiers' attorneys, and sanctioned the department.

Boudin and Scott are currently working to renegotiate an agreement that would keep Boudin's office as the lead investigator in police cases.


(c)2022 the San Francisco Chronicle

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