A Petaluma man who has long been a thorn in the side of the Petaluma Police Department is fighting an arrest that he calls "wrongful and malicious" at the Sonoma County court today.
John Hanania has for years waged battles with the department and city officials over police officers parking in red zones and members of the department driving cars with what he said were illegally tinted windows. He's even gone so far as to hang over the side of the Police Department fence and snap photographs of officers' personal vehicles. By his own admission, he's approached officers on the street to complain about things they are doing that he finds unjust. But now the battle has become even more personal for Hanania.
Hanania and his lawyer, Andrew Giacomini — managing partner of the high-profile Hanson Bridgett law firm — claim that Hanania was wrongfully arrested in April 2012. The two are seeking to have Hanania's conviction of disobeying a police officer overturned by the Sonoma County court's appeals division.
The appeal, which has cost the City of Petaluma about $2,800 in legal and risk management fees, stems from an incident that occurred between Hanania and Officer Lance Novello at the scene of an apartment fire on Baywood Drive last year. Hanania, who lives in the Baywood Drive area, was driving home on April 12, 2012 when he noticed a police vehicle parked against the curb with its lights flashing and Novello standing in the street. Two cars in front of Hanania that attempted to continue down Baywood ended up turning around. Hanania claims he rolled down his window to ask Novello if he could go forward, since his home is most accessible through Baywood Drive. But before he could say anything, Novello began shouting and cursing at him, telling him to turn his vehicle around, Hanania says.
"He didn't do that to the other drivers in front of me," said Hanania. "I know the only reason he did it was because it was me."
Police Chief Patrick Williams would not comment on the case. But according to court documents, Novello claims that, contrary to Hanania's account, he gave ample opportunity for Hanania to turn around. He recounted that Hanania refused to comply with several orders to turn his vehicle around and to produce his driver's license. As the conversation escalated, with Hanania telling Novello to call his supervisor, Novello placed Hanania under arrest — something Giacomini says was a clear violation of Hanania's civil rights.
"This officer lost his temper and suddenly, John (Hanania) was under arrest," said Giacomini. "It never would have happened to you and it never would have happened to me. It only happened because of his negative history with the department. You don't arrest someone because they rolled down their window and tried to talk to you."
Ultimately, the District Attorney's office took Hanania to trial on two misdemeanor charges — obstructing a public officer and failure to comply with an officer. After a five-day trial ended in a hung jury, the judge declared a mistrial. But rather than drop the case or re-file the charges, the District Attorney reduced the two misdemeanor charges to a single infraction charge of disobeying a police officer. Giacomini said the move further deprived Hanania of his civil rights.
"You can't just reduce charges to an infraction without warning," said Giacomini. "Misdemeanor charges allow this to go to a jury and allow Hanania to share his side of the story. But dropping it to an infraction means a judge decides the case and Hanania is never allowed to testify, retain a public defender or do anything else to defend himself again these charges."
That's what Hanania and Giacomini are appealing today. If his appeal is not overturned, Hanania could be fined up to $1,200.