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Thursday, July 2, 2009 | On June 26, at 9 p.m. someone called the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and made what the department has described as a “noise complaint.” The call resulted in several deputies, a K-9 unit and a helicopter being deployed to a private residence where a political fundraiser was being held for congressional candidate Francine Busby.
The evening ended in chaos, with the host of the fundraiser in jail accused of obstructing a peace officer and battery on a peace officer and several middle-aged guests alleging excessive force by a deputy who they claim shot pepper spray indiscriminately at a crowd of guests.
Of all the questions to surface since that evening, the identity of the mystery caller to the Sheriff’s Department, and the nature of his or her complaint remain perhaps the most perplexing. Because the department won’t reveal any information about the caller and won’t release any documents or recordings of the incident, the public has no way of knowing if the caller was a disgruntled neighbor, upset about noise from the party, or a political saboteur, intent on disrupting Busby’s fundraiser.
For her part, Busby wants to know if the caller was the same person who hid in some bushes on a plot adjacent to the home where the fundraiser was held and heckled her while she made a speech to supporters. She has asked the Sheriff’s Department to clear the air by releasing a recording of the phone complaint.
The Sheriff’s Department issued a statement saying that it received a noise complaint from an individual regarding the fundraising event. But the department has refused to elaborate on the incident because it is currently under internal investigation.
Sanford Toyen, a Sheriff’s Department legal advisor, said the records are exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act because they are records of a law enforcement investigation.
But public records law expert Terry Francke disagreed. Francke said while the department may keep the identity of the complainer secret, it is required to make public the basic facts of the complaint under the CPRA.
“Merely using a label like ‘noise complaint’ is insufficient,” Francke said.
Kevin Keenan, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the Sheriff’s Department has to play a delicate balancing act between releasing information about what could be a malicious complaint and protecting the privacy of the individual who made the call.
But Keenan said the department could release certain information about the incident — for example, whether the complaint was made by a neighbor or someone who did not live near the party and could not legitimately make the claim that they were disturbed by it.
“When there’s a vacuum of information and a lot of legitimate concerns, it’s usually the best policy to get the information out there,” Keenan said.
According to the Sheriff’s Department, a deputy based in Encinitas was called to the residence on Rubenstein Avenue in Cardiff after the department received the noise complaint at about 9 p.m. on July 26.
About an hour before the deputy showed up, Busby had made a brief speech on the back patio of the large house where the fundraiser was being held.
That speech prompted the mystery heckler to launch his reported tirade.
As Busby spoke to the crowd through a public address system, a man hidden behind trees and bushes on a neighboring lot started to shout obscenities and insults about her policies, said four people who attended the party. The profanity-laced invective went on for several minutes before one of Busby’s supporters decided to shout back, Busby said.
“Somebody yelled back at him. Whoever he was, he was hidden in the bushes, we couldn’t see him,” Busby said.
There are three homes whose gardens back onto the yard where the fundraiser was being held. In interviews, the residents of all three of those homes said they had no idea who might have shouted at the group gathered for the fundraiser. All of the residents said they were Democrats and said they had not heard any noise from the party until the Sheriff’s Department helicopter showed up.
One of the homes has a long backyard that dead-ends in a row of pine trees bordering on the property where Busby’s fundraiser was held. The yard is easily accessible from the street, and an individual intent on disrupting Busby’s fundraiser could easily have sneaked onto the property and hidden in the trees.
Christine Carlino, a lawyer who represents Shari Barman, who hosted the party and who was arrested after arguing with a deputy, was at the fundraiser. She said Barman and her partner, Jane Stratton, have spoken with all the neighbors whose homes border theirs. None of the neighbors said they had made the comments, Carlino said.
Busby held a meeting with officials from the Sheriff’s Department on Thursday afternoon to discuss the incident. After the meeting, she said the department won’t release any details about who made the complaint or what the caller said.
After her meeting with the department officials, Busby said the public interest would be served by releasing at least some information about the complaint call.
“I’m concerned that this might have been politically motivated,” Busby said. “If that was part of that phone call, then it’s important for us to know that so that we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The District Attorney’s Office is currently investigating whether or not to bring charges against Barman. The Sheriff’s Department is currently investigating the actions of the deputies who were called to the residence.