A McFarland police officer recently promoted to the rank of commander turns out to have a criminal record. Documents from San Bernardino County Superior Court reveal that in 2009, Steven Nieves was arrested by Fontana police and charged with six misdemeanor counts including exhibiting a weapon, false imprisonment, preventing/dissuading a witness from prosecuting and trespassing.
He was a Riverside County District Attorney's office investigator at the time.
A criminal complaint filed by the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office in March of that year states that Nieves did, "Unlawfully, in the presence of another, draw and exhibit a firearm in a rude, angry and threatening manner and did use a firearm in a fight and quarrel."
The complaint alleged three more counts of false imprisonment. A fifth count claimed Nieves unlawfully attempted to dissuade a witness from prosecuting a crime. The last count charged Nieves with trespassing. He later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor false imprisonment.
"I thought that the conduct was outrageous because someone like him ought to know better. He has special training. He has a duty to uphold the law," said former prosecutor Joshua Visco, who handled the case for the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office. Visco is now in private practice.
According to John Hall, public information specialist with the Riverside County District Attorney's office, Nieves worked as an investigator there from 2007 to 2010. Nieves would later end up being hired and ultimately promoted to commander in the McFarland Police Department.
The position is answerable only to the chief.
A timeline of events shows:
* March 2009: Nieves was charged with the six misdemeanor counts.
* October 2010: Nieves left his job as an investigator for the Riverside County D.A.'s office.
* December 2010: Nieves was hired as a reserve officer in McFarland, according to city records.
* September 2011: In a plea bargain, Nieves pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment. The rest of the five charges were dismissed. Nieves was sentenced to three years' probation, ordered to pay a fine and ordered to stay away from the victims, according to San Bernardino County Superior Court records.
* July 2012: Nieves was promoted to police corporal.
* October 2013: Nieves was promoted to commander. He is second in charge of a police force with 14 officers plus reserves.
Under state law, Nieves' conviction for misdemeanor false imprisonment does not prevent him from working as a peace officer. But a criminal conviction for a police officer can pose special problems when it comes to prosecuting a case, said Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman.
"If they have some type of crime or criminal conduct in their past, that can be used to impeach their credibility," said Spielman.
McFarland Police Chief Greg Herrington at first refused to comment on Nieves' conviction or why Nieves was hired and then promoted.
"I had nothing to do with his hiring," Herrington later said. Days after that, he added, "I was not the chief when Nieves was hired."
Herrington said it was his predecessor, David Oberhoffer, who hired Nieves as a reservist. Oberhoffer was fired in 2011 by the City Council and Herrington was later named police chief.
But court documents reveal that in June 2012, Herrington wrote a letter on behalf of Nieves. Nieves had already pleaded no contest to misdemeanor false imprisonment and was on three years' probation. He petitioned the court for early termination of probation, and Herrington, on department letterhead, wrote the following letter to Nieves' attorney, Steven Chulak:
"Currently, Steven Nieves is seeking full-time employment with the City of McFarland Police Department. However, I am unable to offer it to him at this time due to his current status of court probation and adjudicated case," wrote Herrington. "I have expressed to Nieves that upon completion of this, I would be able to offer him a full-time position with the department."
Nieves received early termination of probation Aug. 13, 2012, according to San Bernardino Superior Court records.
Herrington said he could not comment on the letter because it was a personnel issue. Nieves did not return any calls or email requests asking for comment on this story. Reached by phone last week, Nieves said he would check with his lawyer and get back to me later.
Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.