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Don’t ask, don’t tell at the Broward State Attorney’s Office

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman Photo: WSVN-Channel 7

Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman Photo: WSVN-Channel 7

Broward prosecutors who declined to charge a Coconut Creek policeman who pulled a Taser on a frightened theft suspect standing in a bathtub never asked the officer under oath why he hadn’t mentioned the incident in his police reports.

Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman investigated police allegations that Officer James Yacobellis committed assault and tried to cover it up by falsifying his reports to omit the 2011 bathroom incident.

On Aug. 21 2012, Newman took an hour-long, voluntary sworn statement from Yacobellis. The 55-page transcript shows she did not question Yacobellis about the omission or ask him to answer his department’s allegation that he had falsified his reports.

Likewise, Newman did not ask Yacobellis to respond to accusations from the young man he interrogated in the bathroom, Blake L. Robinson, who claimed under oath that Yacobellis had threatened him with the Taser.

But two months later, Newman offered her own theory to explain Yacobellis’s incomplete police reports in her closeout memo that ended the inquiry without criminal charges.

“There appears to be no intent to hide this fact and the state has no evidence to rebut a contention that this was inadvertently left off the report,” wrote Newman, a prosecutor in State Attorney Mike Satz’s corruption unit.

Public corruption unit chief Timothy Donnelly, who approved the closeout memo, said this week that Yacobellis was under no legal requirement to include in his reports any facts about the bathroom incident.

Public corruption unit chief Timothy Donnelly

Public corruption unit chief Timothy Donnelly

“The fact that he omitted any description of what occurred in the bathroom did not make the report false,” said Donnelly. “While (Newman) doesn’t ask him why he never put that in the report, there is no requirement that he put it in the report.”

Nova Southeastern University professor of constitutional law Robert Jarvis called Donnelly’s assertion “laughable.” Jarvis said the facts Yacobellis left out of his reports were clearly important to the state’s criminal investigation.

“They’re not being reasonable,” said Jarvis. “A police report is supposed to be a fair and accurate summary of what took place…It is very easy to see in this case that it is material if you put a suspect in a bathtub and you have a Taser out.”

“This sounds like a very unusual interrogation, and the more unusual it is the more complete a report has to be. It should bother anybody because that is not the way the cops should operate,” he said.

Records show Officer Yacobellis was summoned to Coconut Creek’s Star Pointe apartments on Aug. 15, 2011 to investigate a report of missing jewelry involving several members of the same family. After two suspects were identified, Yacobellis took one of them, Robinson, into a small bathroom for questioning. The door was closed and the sink faucet was turned on full.

Both Robinson and Coconut Creek police Sgt. Dominic Coppola later stated that Yacobellis held a Taser while a frightened Robinson stood in the bathtub. Under oath, Sgt. Coppola testified the Taser was switched on, with its laser beam targeting system emitting.

Coppola said he asked Yacobellis what was going on and Yacobellis replied, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists and I tase him.”

Newman concluded in her closeout memo that the statement could be either a threat or a response to a threat from Robinson. She then went on to express tolerance for police who display a Taser during an interrogation.

“It is entirely possible that Officer Yacobellis may have taken out his Taser in an attempt to scare Blake (Robinson) into confessing,” Newman wrote. “While this may not have been the best technique to interrogate a suspect, the intent, by all accounts, was certainly to help the victims recover their missing items.

Civil rights advocates, however, called what happened a disturbing example of police misconduct akin to torture.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein asked the Justice Department this month to investigate the State Attorney’s “long, distressing history” of condoning improper interrogation techniques.

Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis

Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis

In his sworn statement last summer, Yacobellis confirmed he took a compliant Robinson into the bathroom for questioning and said he displayed his Taser only after Robinson started becoming “antsy.”

Yacobellis complained that Sgt. Coppola’s statement about him was riddled with inaccuracies and “lies,” though he offered no reason why Coppola would lie about him. He likewise denied activating his Taser and said Robinson didn’t look scared to him.

Yacobellis complained, too, about Police Chief Michael Mann, asserting the chief had unfairly disciplined him in the past and once threatened to “ruin” his reputation.

Yacobellis said that shortly after the bathtub incident the chief put him on paid administrative leave and ordered him to submit to what he termed a “psyche,” or fitness for duty evaluation by a local doctor.

The doctor found Yacobellis “temporarily unfit,” Yacobellis stated. Prosecutor Newman did not ask him to explain why.

Yacobellis’s union lawyer, Anthony Alfero, stated that another doctor hired by the Broward County Police Benevolent Association concluded “there’s nothing wrong with this guy at all, get him back to work.”

When Newman began to wrap up Yacobellis’s statement without asking him about the false reports allegation Alfero brought it up.

“We don’t know what falsification has to do with these reports,” Alfero said. “If you don’t want to tell us, you don’t have to. But we’re trying to answer the questions so…”

“I think you have. I think you have,” Newman replied.

 

 

 

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