DA’s office: Portland officer’s conduct ‘quite troubling’

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A Portland police officer will not be criminally prosecuted but faces an internal investigation to see if he violated any city policy after parking his private vehicle, while off-duty, not paying the meter and removing his vehicle’s license plates and covering the VIN, KOIN 6 News has confirmed.

Officer James Escobar, 30, who is assigned to Central Precinct, was sworn in March 24, 2011. He was recently cleared of any criminal wrong doing by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.

Officer James Escobar shown at a gun turn in event on October 22, 2011. (Photo used with permission from Oregonian Media Group)
Officer James Escobar shown at a gun turn in event on October 22, 2011. (Photo used with permission from Oregonian Media Group)

“The conduct of Escobar, is however, quite troubling,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Donald Rees wrote in a memo.

Rees wrote because Escobar was off-duty when he parked his private vehicle, and did not use his position as a police officer to benefit himself, and because he no longer has any outstanding parking fines, the district attorney’s office declined to file criminal charges.

The memo, first obtained by KOIN 6 News, explains detectives with the Portland Police Bureau submitted the case to the DA’s Office to review potential criminal charges of theft of services and first-degree official misconduct.

“As a result of his off-duty actions, which appear intentionally calculated to avoid paying for parking in the City of Portland while assigned to Central Precinct, Escobar amassed unpaid fines and penalties in excess of one-thousand dollars,” Rees wrote.

Court records show on Aug. 18, 2013 at 4:36 p.m., a parking enforcement employee found a Chrysler vehicle parked on the west side of Southwest 1st Avenue between Southwest Salmon Street and Southwest Main Street. The location is one block away from Portland Police Bureau headquarters located at 1111 Southwest 2nd Avenue. In January 2014, the vehicle was later identified as Escobar’s.

A photo taken by Parking Enforcement of a vehicle later identified as Officer James Escobar's (KOIN)
A photo taken by Parking Enforcement of a vehicle later identified as Officer James Escobar’s (KOIN)

The parking enforcement employee noticed the vehicle did not have any front or rear license plates, court records show. The employee issued a failure to display current vehicle registration that had expired within 90 days citation.

KOIN 6 News has obtained a copy of the citation that was issued. In it, the enforcement employee writes she was unable to locate a meter receipt. The employee reported she checked all the windows, dash, seat and floor, but was unable to find proof of payment. In her report, the parking employee wrote the VIN was “deliberately covered.”

A copy of a parking citation issued to a vehicle later identified as belonging to officer James Escobar (KOIN)
A copy of a parking citation issued to a vehicle later identified as belonging to officer James Escobar (KOIN)

The two citations – failure to display current registration and no meter receipt – both went unpaid, court records show said. The case was considered “delinquent,” court records show.

The City of Portland’s Parking Enforcement Division cited Escobar’s personal vehicle 10 times between Aug. 18, 2013 and Jan. 25, 2014, Rees’ memo states. Each time, the car was parked on streets around Central Precinct, court records show. The DA’s Office said every time the vehicle was cited, the owner of the car could not be identified because the vehicle never displayed license plates, and in some cases, the VIN was covered with a folded piece of paper.

On January 6, 2014, a parking enforcement employee spotted the Chrysler illegally parked in a truck loading zone, Rees wrote. The employee approached the vehicle and noticed the driver behind the wheel. The employee noticed the VIN was covered with a piece of paper that appeared to be a temporary permit. Rees’ memo states the employee asked the driver if the permit had expired. The driver replied “yes,” the memo states.

The parking employee noted the vehicle did not have any license plates, Rees’ memo states. The driver reportedly responded, “I know, I don’t want anyone to steal them,” Rees wrote. The driver drove away before the vehicle could be cited, and the driver could not be positively identified.

On Jan. 25, 2014, a separate parking enforcement employee was patrolling in the early afternoon when he located a Chrysler vehicle without front or rear licenses plates parked along Southwest Natio Parkway, court records show. Because of the previously unpaid parking tickets associated to the car, a warrant had been issued for the vehicle, court records state.

A photo of a vehicle Portland Parking Enforcement said was identified as Officer James Escobar's (KOIN)
A photo of a vehicle Portland Parking Enforcement said was identified as Officer James Escobar’s (KOIN)

The parking enforcement employee stood by as a tow truck began to hook up the vehicle, Rees wrote. “Before the vehicle was towed, Escobar arrived at the scene,” the memo states. Escobar was driving a police patrol vehicle and was wearing an official police uniform, the DA’s memo states. “Escobar identified himself as the owner of the unidentified vehicle with missing plates and sought to pay for the tow charge to avoid having the vehicle towed,” Rees wrote.

Escobar was told a “drop fee” could not be paid because the court had issued a warrant and the tow was mandatory, Rees wrote.

“Both witnesses told the detectives investigating the case that Escobar was polite, courtesy and specifically stated his request made as [a] private citizen,” Rees wrote.

Escobar’s vehicle was towed at approximately 4:30 p.m. KOIN 6 News has obtained a copy of an internal email sent from the parking employee to his supervisors detailing the towing incident. The employee wrote the officer “never raised his voice and repeatedly told me that he understands my position as a public servant and that I am doing my job. He was completely professional the entire interaction.”

On January 27, 2014, Escobar paid all outstanding fines and fees totaling more than $1,000 and the court released his impounded vehicle, records show.

At the heart of the matter: did Escobar violate Oregon’s “official misconduct” or “theft of services” statues by intentionally removing his vehicle’s license plates and covering up the VIN in order to avoid detection from parking enforcement and after choosing not to pay for parking.

Under Oregon Revised Statue (ORS) 164.125(1), Rees cites:

“A person commits the crime of theft of services if: with the intent to avoid payment therefor, the person obtains services that are available only for compensation, by … deception or other means to avoid payment for the service.”

“The defendant’s actions in this case could arguably constitute violation of this statute,” Rees wrote. Under Oregon’s broad definition, parking on a city street, could be considered a service. “The defendant’s failure to display license plates and the act of hiding his vehicle identification number with a folded piece of paper also arguably appears to involve ‘deception or other means’ intended to prevent identification of vehicle ownership in an effort to avoid paying for street parking in the City of Portland,” Rees wrote.

Photo of the VIN covered by a piece of paper that Parking Enforcement said was covered by Officer James Escobar. (KOIN)
Photo of the VIN covered by a piece of paper that Parking Enforcement said was covered by Officer James Escobar. (KOIN)

The efforts ultimately failed, the prosecutor said, when Escobar was forced to identify himself as the owner of the vehicle when it was towed.

Rees wrote it is possible that some case might present itself in the future, related to parking violations, that would lead to criminal charges under the same circumstances presented in the Escobar case, but that because “Escobar has suffered the penalty proscribed by law for failing to pay for parking and failing to display his license plates” no prosecution is warranted.

Under ORS 162.415 (1) (b), Rees cites:

“A public servant commits the crime of official misconduct in the first degree if with the intent to obtain a benefit ‘the public servant knowingly performs an act constituting an unauthorized exercise in official duties.”

Rees wrote because Escobar was off duty when he initially parked his private vehicle, it does not appear Escobar used his power as a police officer to obtain free parking or to influence the parking enforcement employee.

“Although he contacted the tow truck driver and Parking Enforcement employee while on duty he was careful to state that his interest was strictly as a citizen and he took no actions in an official capacity,” Rees wrote.

In a letter to the detectives investigating the case, Escobar reportedly admitted that “his actions were ‘inexcusable’ and reflect ‘poor judgment,’” Rees wrote.

Sgt. Pete Simpson, a police spokesman, said he was unable to comment specifically on the pending internal investigation that Escobar faces but said, “If there is misconduct that rises to a policy violation, the bureau does take action.”

Sgt. Pete Simpson, a police spokesperson, speaks with KOIN 6 News reporter Brent Weisberg (KOIN)
Sgt. Pete Simpson, a police spokesperson, speaks with KOIN 6 News reporter Brent Weisberg (KOIN)

Speaking in general terms, Simpson said, discipline can range from a letter of reprimand to termination.

“In any case of misconduct, the bureau takes a very serious look at the allegations and the evidence to support those allegations,” Simpson said.

Mayor Charlie Hales, who also serves as the Police Commissioner, said he had only heard about the internal investigation after KOIN 6 News brought it to his attention on April 8, 2014.

“I have high expectations for the Police Bureau,” Hales said. “And I expect them to be met and most of the time they are. And when there’s somebody who falls short, or when there’s someone who makes a bad decision, there’s a consequence.”

Escobar remains on patrols with the bureau pending the internal investigation. Several attempts to contact him for this report were unsuccessful. Officer Daryl Turner, the president of the Portland Police Association, said he could not comment on a pending investigation.

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