Michael Phelps+Nicholas Downey+Charles Foster

Attorney Michael Schwartz, left, stands with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies Michael Phelps, Nicholas Downey and Charles Foster during an arraignment on Tuesday in San Bernardino.Attorney Michael Schwartz, left, stands with San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Deputies Michael Phelps, Nicholas Downey and Charles Foster during an arraignment on Tuesday in San Bernardino. Three sheriff’s deputies involved in the televised beating of a man after he tried to escape on horseback have been charged with felony assault. (Micah Escamilla/The Sun via AP)


By Shea Johnson
Staff Writer
Posted Sep. 8, 2015 at 2:08 PM
Updated Sep 8, 2015 at 6:55 PM

  • Attorneys say their clients used reasonable force, were aware of audio recordings

SAN BERNARDINO — Three San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies pleaded not guilty Tuesday to felony assault by a public officer in connection with the April 9 arrest and beating of Francis Pusok.

Michael Phelps, 29, Nick Downey, 33, and Charles Foster, 34, entered the pleas in a San Bernardino courtroom. The deputies appeared free on bail in dark-colored dress clothes, although they remain on paid administrative leave.

A procedural hearing was set for Oct. 22. Attorneys for the deputies told Judge Alexander Martinez they were handed a disc with evidence Tuesday and will now need to wade through about 3,000 pages of documents.

The attorneys also unsuccessfully fought to stop the media from being allowed to photograph their clients inside the courtroom, citing safety concerns for them and their families.

Outside on the north-end steps of the San Bernardino Justice Center, the attorneys insisted to reporters that the actions of their clients were reasonable and appropriate given the circumstances.

“You have to look beyond the video,” said attorney Steve Sanchez, who is representing Phelps, adding that Pusok’s three-hour getaway from authorities made him a dangerous suspect. “They have to act as if the suspect is going to cause them harm.”

Downey’s attorney Michael Schwartz said deputies are tasked with controlling a suspect and until they succeed in doing so, they should rightfully feel threatened.

“This wasn’t somebody who was a poster child for good behavior,” he said about Pusok.

The announcement of charges last week by District Attorney Michael Ramos came two months after the Sheriff’s Department handed over the results of its criminal investigation to the DA’s office and nearly five months after the incident became national news.

An NBC 4 aerial news video captured Pusok’s arrest, which followed a three-hour pursuit ending in an unincorporated area south of Apple Valley and Hesperia.

Ultimately, 10 deputies were placed on administrative leave at the onset of the sheriff’s investigation into the video, which Sheriff John McMahon called “disturbing” after watching it. But seven were not charged, yet remain on paid administrative leave. Last week, Ramos said those deputies’ perception of what was happening as they responded to the scene was skewed by no fault of their own.

“Some of those deputies that were responding were hearing things on the belt recording that weren’t really occurring, so they felt (Pusok) was still a threat,” he said. “The use of force they showed was reasonable under the circumstances. A lot of those officers just put their foot on him to hold him down and make sure he wasn’t moving.”

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