By her own admission, Sarah Vargas was behaving badly when the police came to her home in March 2017. But Vargas alleges in a lawsuit filed in federal District Court that a Honolulu police officer behaved much worse.
Vargas alleges Officer David Oh, who has since left the force, sexually assaulted her after being called to investigate a domestic disturbance. Vargas said she was drunk and had been fighting with her friend, Jessica Reyes. Vargas was so drunk, in fact, that she urinated on the floor and punched Reyes hard enough to break her nose, according to the lawsuit.
Vargas was wearing only a bathrobe when police arrived in response to her 911 call, the suit says, and when Oh’s partner, Officer Corporal Costa, took Reyes outside to get her statement, Oh took Vargas to the bedroom and had sex with her.
Vargas was too drunk to consent to sex, the suit says. And, in any case, she was in Oh’s investigative custody and not free to leave, the suit says.
“Plaintiff could not lawfully consent to sexual contact with Officer Oh, while he had her under investigatory detention in her own home,” the complaint says. “Any sexual contact between Officer Oh and Plaintiff was non-consensual as a matter of law.”
The suit names Oh, Costa and the City and County of Honolulu as defendants.
“It seems like members of the Honolulu Police Department use their power to have sex on the job,” said Brian Mackintosh, the plaintiff’s lawyer. “And that needs to end.”
Mackintosh noted that the HPD opposed legislation to make it illegal for undercover officers to have sex with prostitutes while on duty. Then-Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha testified that prohibiting the practice would “greatly assist pimps and prostitutes in their efforts to avoid prosecution.”
Vargas’ complaint says that posture from police leaders created an unhealthy environment in the department.
“HPD lobbying efforts at the Hawaii State Legislature and its deliberate indifference to sexual violence by its officers has created a custom where it is acceptable for police officers to commit sexual assault during the course and scope of their employment,” the suit says.
Sarah Yoro, a Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case. She did say Oh served with the department from 2013 to 2018 and is no longer employed there, although Costa is still there.
The suit says Oh has not been charged with any crime, and that any responsibility for prosecuting him was transferred from the Honolulu prosecutor to the state attorney general’s office Feb. 27 “for fear that the investigation and prosecution of Officer Oh may have been tainted by possible collusion between policy-making members of HPD and the Department of the Prosecuting Attorney in the desire to protect criminally liable HPD Officers.”
While Oh has left the department, it’s unclear whether he was disciplined. Under Hawaii law, county police departments submit annual reports on incidents of police misconduct to the Legislature. The reports include basic information on disciplinary action taken against the officers. However, the information in the reports is scant and does not identify officers by name, even those suspended or discharged.
House Bill 285, currently making its way through the Legislature, would change that. The bill has the support of a number of organizations, including the state Office of Information Practices, League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Society of Professional Journalists, the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest and American Civil Liberties Union. The police union opposes it.
Vargas has left Hawaii, Mackintosh said, adding her husband was stationed at Pearl Harbor and deployed with the Navy at the time of the incident.
The morning after the incident, Vargas had a rape test done at Tripler Army Medical Center, which confirmed she had been assaulted, the complaint says.
The Navy moved the family to California so they would be out of Honolulu police jurisdiction, Mackintosh said.
“She was pretty traumatized,” he said.
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