Was delay in hazing search warranted?

March 12, 2007 12:00 am

There was bad news and good over at the Tuolumne County Sheriff"s Department last week.

First the bad: It took the department a month and a half to secure a warrant and search the Columbia College Firehouse, epicenter of a hazing controversy that hit the news in January.

On Jan. 15, a 19-year-old rookie member of the student fire department told deputies that fellow firefighters had forced him to drink large quantities of beer, then kicked him and punched him during an off-campus party in Crystal Falls. He added that other probationary firefighters have been similarly hazed.

Although the case's profile and community impact has been higher than most murders the sheriff investigates, and although the college firehouse seems an obvious place to look, it was six weeks before a warrant was issued for the firehouse and for the Twain Harte home of one student firefighter.

But there is good news: Despite the long grace period, deputies involved in the searches recovered valuable evidence, including videotapes, CDs, photographs, written material and a firehouse computer. All the items seized, said Sheriff's Lt. Dan Bressler, were related to the hazing case.

For this, the Sheriff's Department might thank suspects who were inexplicably oblivious to the possibility that officers might come looking for the evidence.

It wasn't like the movies, where bad guys race home as soon as they get wind of an investigation, run into the house and are flushing contraband down the toilet as G-men bust down the door. Instead, things are progressing at a more leisurely pace in this case.

It should be pointed out, however, that courts do not issue spur-of-the-moment search warrants based on hunches or ungrounded suspicion. Instead, evidence justifying warrants must be presented to a judge, who is required to find that the proposed search is lawful and justified.

"It sometimes takes time to build enough probable cause to cause the issuance of a search warrant," said Bressler, pointing out that Detective Ken Diaz has interviewed more than 30 people in connection with the hazing case. "Because we had only one investigator assigned to the case, he is working this investigation one step at a time."

Only after such interviews, Bressler added, do investigators learn "what is evidence and what isn't."

Finally, he said, it took the department a while to muster the manpower to conduct the searches of buildings where "multiple persons were expected to be found."

Valid reasons? Perhaps, particularly during a countywide budget crisis during which the sheriff and every other department is operating with limited funds and a limited staff.

While rushing headlong into court with incomplete information is certainly ill-advised, securing a warrant quickly enough so evidence isn't disposed of, moved or hidden should be a high priority.

Because detectives can't always rely on the goodwill and slow reflexes that were so graciously extended to them in the hazing case.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller, City Editor Craig Cassidy and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.