It Was Supposed To Be A Large Pepperoni

Via the LA Times, an Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy is charged with a misdemeanor count of assault for engaging in what would appear to be a bizarre practical joke following a traffic stop.

Juan Tavera, a six-year veteran of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, spotted the pizza in the back seat of the 19-year-old’s car and sprayed it without the youth’s knowledge, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.

Tavera allegedly pulled up to the spot where a 19-year-old man had been pulled over by another officer for a traffic violation in Laguna Hills last Sept. 8. During the course of the traffic stop, the deputy is accused of reaching into the back seat and spraying the pizza.

As a result of eating the pepper sprayed pizza, the 19-year-old and four of his friends became ill.  Inexplicably, they contacted “authorities after becoming suspicious of his earlier encounter with Tavera.” The article offers no basis for suspicion of the deputy as opposed to spoiled tomato sauce.

As Jonathan Turley points out, the ignominiously named “pepper spray” isn’t exactly a substitute for a decent grinder:

The term pepper spray is a bit of a misnomer for OC (“Oleoresin Capsicum”). The active ingredient is indeed capsaicin, which is a chemical derived from chilis and other such plants.  That is where the similarity ends however. Oleoresin capsicum is extracted using a solvent like ethanol. It is then turned into a resin and mixed with an emulsifier like propylene glycol.

While OC serves as an irritant and has no place on a pizza, it’s not lethal. On the other hand, if the Deputy sprayed it on a pizza, there is something seriously wrong with the deputy’s head, suggesting that he’s clearly not psychologically fit to be armed or in a position of power.

Yet, the story has some loose ends that raise questions. Why would the victim assume that getting sick after eating something was caused by OC surreptitiously sprayed rather than plain old bad food. The latter happens fairly regularly, while the former is quite a zebra. In the absence of some trigger to suggest the cop did something improper, it’s hard to understand why that would even come up as a possibility.

Moreover, the article offers nothing of an evidentiary nature to suggest why the prosecution believes the deputy did such an incredibly bizarre thing. To prove he did it, they would need to either have a confession or have tested the pizza for the presence of OC.

The former is unlikely, both because cops know better than to talk and because they’re protected under the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights. Had Tavera pepper sprayed a pizza inside a car, the entire interior of the vehicle would have been toxic and reeked, and it seems impossible that no one would have noticed. OC is not a surgical tool.

But testing the pizza raises questions as well, since there is a fair likelihood that five guys would have finished the pizza, and even if they hadn’t, testing food for a foreign substance is an unusual procedure, and in the absence of a very good reason to do so, it’s hard to picture the police having gone through the hassle.

On the flip side, there is a serious question about whether a misdemeanor assault charge, if they have any real evidence to back up the charge, makes sense. If it happened, then this should have been charged as a felony under California Penal Code 347(a)(1).

347.  (a) (1) Every person who willfully mingles any poison or  harmful substance with any food, drink, medicine, or pharmaceutical  product or who willfully places any poison or harmful substance in  any spring, well, reservoir, or public water supply, where the person  knows or should have known that the same would be taken by any human  being to his or her injury, is guilty of a felony punishable by  imprisonment in the state prison for two, four, or five years.

To add to the disturbing questions surrounding this already bizarre story is the reaction from other police officers at the always-hilarious PoliceOne. While many of the officer-commenters call “bullshit” on the story, the consensus remains that if it indeed happened, then the “victim” no doubt deserved it (one even suggesting that it was “bad drugs” that made the victim ill) and no one suggesting that any officer who would do such a thing was mentally impaired and had no business being a cop.  At worst, this was a practical joke that wasn’t funny enough to lose a pension over.

In contrast, commenters at Turley’s blog have Deputy Tavera in supermax for the rest of his natural life.

Much as many readers allow their anger toward abusive cops to color their view of stories, particularly bizarre stories such as this, so that the default reaction is to assume guilt and call for the deputy to be drawn and quartered, then fired and sentenced to life plus cancer, every “crime” story needs to be viewed through a skeptical lens.

This story is factually vacuous, always a bad sign when attempting to discern whether the claims are real or, well, less than real. One can fairly assume that the Orange County District Attorney won’t leap at the chance to prosecute a deputy in the absence of strong evidence of guilt, but then, why only a misdemeanor rather than felony charge?

For those disinclined to cut cops a break, just because they so rarely would return the favor, bear in mind that the objective is that every defendant be treated fairly and properly, and we test the efficacy of the system by the worst human being among us.  If that happens to be Deputy Juan Tavera, then give the allegations against him the same scrutiny you would desire if it were your butt in the defendant’s chair.


4 comments on “It Was Supposed To Be A Large Pepperoni

  1. C. N. Nevets

    The pizza wasn’t in a box? It was sitting open and exposed so that he could just sneakily spray it? I mean, reaching in, flipping a box open, spraying it, then closing the box . . . Without being noticed?

    And also, it was saturated enough to make them sick but not to burn their fingers or mouths?

    Something is fishy, and I don’t think it’s the anchovies.

  2. jahigginbotham

    Regardless of the possible classification/description of OC (see e.g. Otteray Scribe’s comment at Turley’s site), Turley does not point out that “pepper spray” is bad. He uses terms such as “solvent”, “ethanol”, “emulsifier”, and “resin” in an attempt to make OC sound bad. But the two sentences don’t really describe anything bad. Vanilla extract is made by extracting flavor from beans with the solvent ethanol. And there isn’t anything much more vanilla than vanilla. The same with propylene glycol and emulsifiers which are in many foods we enjoy. So why resort to subterfuge?

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t know how dangerous OC is. I’m not chemist and neither is Turley. Cops get pepper sprayed (and tased, for that matter) as part of their training, so they know what they’re working with. But, scare words notwithstanding, none of this is a joke and most of it, used inappropriately, has the potential for harm. Turley’s point was that OC isn’t like the waiter at the restaurant asking if you would like pepper on your salad. It’s a weapon in the police arsenal, not a condiment.

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