If all Americans are entitled their oft-quoted 15 minutes of fame, then Tony Denunzio has gotten far more than his fair share. And based on recent events, Denunzio’s unhappy dance in the public limelight is far from over.
Denunzio first burst into the consciousness of Santa Barbara’s civic minded public in October 2011 when city police officer Aaron Tudor deployed a degree of force to detain him at a traffic stop in the Loreto Plaza parking lot that shocked many of the witnesses for its intensity and violence. Police insisted at the time that Denunzio — who sustained a few broken ribs and was tased 13 times in the incident — was resisting arrest and that the level of force used was necessary and proportional. Strikingly, however, Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley saw it differently and declined to file resisting-arrest charges against Denunzio. Similarly, Dudley declined to make excessive-force findings against the cops.
On May 11, city police booked Denunzio again for resisting arrest after fleeing from Harbor Patrol officers by the city’s waterfront. This time, the DA’s Office announced it will file felony charges against Denunzio for resisting arrest because in the ensuing chase, one Harbor Patrol officer fell and tore his bicep. That injury — quite painful — was serious enough to require surgery and time off for the officer to rehabilitate. Denunzio was booked into County Jail; bail was set at $20,000.
According to the narrative provided by Santa Barbara Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood, city cops responded to a call for assistance from the Harbor Patrol after Denunzio and his brother Dino Denunzio generated complaints from owners of boats docked in Marina 1. They’d gotten past the entrance’s locked gate by going in when a few occupants were coming out. They then stepped onto several boats for sale, generating calls of possible prowlers. When two Harbor Patrol officers braced the two, Denunzio ran and Dino stayed put. Efforts to catch Denunzio failed and at one point, one of the pursuing officers tripped and fell. That, reportedly, is how he sustained his injury. Harwood said when police officers arrived, Denunzio was in the parking lot by Marina 1. When officers threatened to tase him, Denunzio became compliant.
Police contend Denunzio and Dino were intoxicated at the time — one witness claims they’d been kicked out of a nearby waterfront restaurant just beforehand — though no blood-alcohol levels were taken. Darryl Genis, the attorney representing Denunzio in these matters, has questioned the accuracy of Harwood’s recitation. He said Denunzio had been out that night with his brother and that they’d been asked “to tone it down” at Brophy Bros. for getting loud and swearing. Genis said the Denunzio brothers then went into Marina 1 to look at a friend’s boat that was for sale. Police concede that their friend indeed has a boat, but noted that this friend’s boat is not located at Marina 1.
Genis said Denunzio panicked when a security guard “clicked” his Taser while asking them about their business. Denunzio reportedly asked the guard if he planned to use the Taser. He reportedly replied, “I might.” At that point, another officer showed up. When he also took out his Taser, Denunzio “did not want to get beat down,” said Genis, explaining one of the officers attempted to execute a foot sweep on Denunzio. “He said to himself, ‘I am out of here,’” Genis stated. “So he ran from him. He didn’t have to foot sweep Tony.” Genis added that his client thought the Harbor Patrol officers were private security guards not sworn officers.
Genis also suggested that the waterfront arrest and charges could be part of an effort by law enforcement and the DA’s Office to discredit his client, who is now bringing a federal civil rights action against the City of Santa Barbara in connection with the use of force for a traffic stop that they contended was never warranted.
Two weeks ago, Denunzio and Genis won a significant but limited procedural victory, when federal appellate Judge George H. Wu ruled that the forced blood draw taken after the takedown at Loreto Plaza from Denunzio — reportedly held facedown on a filthy floor with a deputy’s knee on his neck without an antiseptic swab applied to his arm — violated Denunzio’s constitutional rights regarding search and seizure. The defense sought to have Denunzio’s charges dismissed, and in his ruling, Judge Wu rejected that motion, meaning the case will likely go to trial.
As with many cases in which Genis is involved, the Denunzio saga has many twists and turns and an abundance of collateral melodrama. In response to the Loreto Plaza incident, the DA charged Denunzio with driving under the influence, driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.8 or higher, and driving on a suspended license. The judge dismissed the second charge; the jury was hung on whether Denunzio was driving under the influence at all — eight thought he was, and four thought otherwise — and the DA declined to refile the charges. At issue again was how “erratically” Denunzio appeared to be driving on Las Positas Road on his way from the Boathouse restaurant and Hendry’s Beach, where he’d been drinking, to the parking lot by Gelson’s market.
Officer Tudor claimed the number of times Denunzio changed lanes — three — made him suspicious enough to initiate the traffic stop. When Denunzio got out of his vehicle — the protocol is for the driver to remain in the vehicle — Tudor issued a series of commands that Denunzio was slow to comply with. Eventually, Tudor would execute a leg sweep, kicking Denunzio’s legs out from underneath him, kneed him in the ribs several times, struck him multiple times with his open palm, and stunned him repeatedly with the Taser.
After the jury deadlocked on the Denunzio’s driving under the influence charge, attorney Genis exalted in his victory. “Humpty Dumpty, baby. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never get this one back together,” he said. The Santa Barbara News-Press also quoted him after the verdict had been rendered, stating of the prosecuting attorney, “I slit her throat and she doesn’t even know she’s bleeding.”
Genis has long been a lightning rod for criticism from area judges and prosecuting attorneys, and based on many such complaints, a magistrate with the California State Bar Association ordered Genis suspended from his right to practice law for a limited period. Genis has appealed that ruling, contending that county prosecutors engage in misconduct as egregious as anything alleged against him but are shielded from consequence by a double standard. Prosecutors for the State Bar Association have been equally unhappy with the verdict, contending that it’s far too lenient given the pattern and practice of Genis’s inflammatory behavior in court. Both sides have submitted arguments regarding the appeal, and a ruling remains pending.