Deputy Sheriff Freddie Carabbacan always took it upon himself to pat down female detainees being held at the First Circuit Court cellblock in Honolulu.
The other deputies assigned to the cellblock, all men like Carabbacan, weren’t comfortable touching women in that way. And for good reason. State policy expressly prohibits them from doing so.
But searching women was necessary, Carabbacan told state investigators and attorneys, because they might try to sneak in contraband. An incident like that had already happened, where a woman tried to commit suicide in the cellblock with a broken crack pipe left in one of the cells.
“They needed a leader,” Carabbacan said of his cellblock during a deposition in 2019. “And I was the guy to step back into that role and tell them, you know ‘We’re not doing anything illegal. This is what we have to do … somebody’s going to die if we don’t do this.’”
The state Department of Public Safety disagreed.
Internal investigations found he violated department policy in two strip searches in 2014. In both cases, women accused him of sexually assaulting them. The department fired Carabbacan in 2015.
He appealed his termination through a union grievance process, and a third-party arbitrator gave him back his job at the cellblock in 2016. At issue were differing interpretations of what exactly constitutes a strip search.
No one disputes that he searched and touched the women. The arbitrator only found that the department failed to prove he violated policy and the Sheriff Division’s standards of conduct.
Carabbacan’s behavior has gotten the state in legal trouble in the past. In 2012, he was accused along with another sheriff and State Capitol security of roughing up a protester. The state settled that case for $100,000 in 2012.
In 2019, one of his accusers from 2014 sued him and DPS. But a circuit court judge dismissed most of the claims against the state because the statute of limitations had expired.
A jury awarded another of his accusers more than $7 million in damages Friday in a 2017 case against Carabbacan and the department.
Carabbacan said he didn’t retain an attorney in the case because he felt justified in what he did.
“I feel my record is clean,” he told Civil Beat Friday. “I have nothing to hide.”
DPS officials declined an interview for this story and referred questions about the case to the Attorney General’s Office. Deputy Attorney General Marie Gavigan, the state’s attorney, declined to comment on the case Friday morning and didn’t return a phone message after the jury’s verdict Friday afternoon.
Civil Beat requested Carabbacan’s disciplinary file but had not received it as of Friday.
The civil case, which played out over the last couple weeks in federal court, includes numerous documents that provide a detailed look at the public safety department’s policies and practices for handling female prisoners and the difficulty women faced if they wanted to complain about mistreatment.
Carabbacan became a deputy sheriff in 2002 after a stint as a state computer technician. He was part of the department’s 12th recruit class. His training records indicate he received eight hours of instruction in the department’s standards of conduct, among numerous other topics.
The amount of training he actually received would go on to factor into his arbitration 14 years later. He disputes ever receiving eight hours of instruction in the department’s standards of conduct.
He told attorneys in 2019 it was more like 15 minutes, where instructors would have recruits read over policy books on their own time. He also said he never received any additional training on pat searches outside of what deputies went over in the academy.
Carabbacan was assigned as temporary sergeant in charge of the First Circuit Court cellblock in 2011. The eight cells on the third-floor cellblock held a mix of male and female detainees awaiting court appearances.
At the time Carabbacan conducted the two strip searches that put him under scrutiny, there were no female sheriff deputies assigned to the cellblock. There were also no cameras in the cells to capture either incident.
On June 17, 2014, Seleena Kumia was one of those detainees Carabbacan searched.
Kumia was in the HOPE probation program, a drug-probation program championed by Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm, who at the time was a Circuit Court judge.
Kumia went to court that day in a blue painter’s suit, with only her underwear underneath. She testified that Alm gave her a four-hour pass to do a drug assessment with instructions to not go home and change her clothes.
Before going to her assessment, Kumia changed her clothes in a court bathroom with another inmate because she said she felt inappropriately dressed to go out. She went for her assessment and came back to the courthouse later in the day.
Upon entering the cellblock, Anthony Kaahanui, a deputy sheriff, began yelling at her, telling her she messed up and that she picked up new charges just for changing her clothes. Kaahanui retrieved Carabbacan from the sheriff’s control room in the cellblock. And he told Kumia to go into an empty cell nearest the entrance to the cellblock.
With the cell door open, and Kaahanui watching, Carabbacan told Kumia to strip.
While testifying in court Oct. 28, Kumia choked up and her voice cracked as she described in lurid detail how Carabbacan searched her. She’s had to recount the incident several times over the years for investigators and attorneys handling the civil lawsuits against the state, court records show.
She was forced to stand with her hands against a wall and spread her legs wide for Carabbacan to check. He yanked her bra away to see her breasts and ran his hands under her breasts and between her cleavage, she told the court.
Kumia said she couldn’t disobey Carabbacan because she was afraid of making her situation worse.
“I was just numb. I was trying to hold back tears. Try not to show him I was weak or scared,” she said, sobbing on the witness stand.
Back in the holding cell for women and on the ride to the OCCC, Kumia initially wanted to “let it go” and not report the situation.
“Forget about it. Who would believe me? I’m an addict,” she recalls telling other women inmates.
She decided to report the incident at the urging of jail guards, who told her male sheriffs can’t search women. A report of her incident taken by Honolulu police officers would eventually be referred back to DPS, officials said during court proceedings.
On June 19, 2014, two days after the incident with Kumia, Russell Ching, who was a lieutenant in charge of the First Circuit Court, issued a memo ordering Carabbacan to stop searching women and relieving him of his duties as sergeant. Ching had already admonished Carabbacan for how he handled Kumia’s search.
“I just went off — because when he explained to me what he did, excuse the language — ‘what the fuck?’” Ching told a state investigator in 2014. “I did tell him … he is not supposed to have strip searched her. By policy, he cannot.”
On June 30, Ching issued another memo, directing all deputies to follow department policy when searching detainees. Part of that policy states that only men can search men and only women can search women.
That policy is labeled confidential and not viewable by the public on DPS’s website, but a copy of it was published in the court record.
A day later on July 1, 2014, with little explanation, Ching put Carabbacan back in charge of the cellblock and said in a memo that previous restrictions on searching female detainees were lifted.
On July 3, two days after being reinstated as acting sergeant, Crabbacan was named as a target of an internal investigation by the department.
That same day, Elizabeth Mueller, another HOPE probationer, was brought into the cellblock and later searched by Carabbacan.
Like Kumia, she also received a day pass to do an assessment and was ordered to come back to the courthouse later that day.
She testified that she was picked up from the beach and wore shorts and a tank top, and so she changed clothes at a nearby church because she felt inappropriately dressed before going to her assessment.
Back at the cellblock, Mueller, like Kumia, was told she would face additional charges for changing her clothes. Carabbacan told Mueller to go into the same cell he searched Kumia in. He snapped blue gloves on his hands and told Mueller to strip, she recalls.
“I felt like if I didn’t do what he told me, he could say I was combative, and he would take me down and my situation would be worse,” Mueller said in court.
Mueller recounted Carabbacan starting his search at her ankles, running his hands up her thighs until his fingers stopped at her crotch. He ran his fingers under her breasts, lifted them and shook, she said.
She went back to the holding cell for women and said she’d report the incident.
“I was upset, devastated,” she testified in court on Nov. 2. “I said I would report it. I’ve had a hard life. I know what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate.”
Minutes later, Carabbacan ordered her to go back to another cell. There, he told her to take off her bra. He asked if she needed help.
She slipped it off underneath her shirt and handed it to him. She recalled him taking it back to the sheriff’s control room and hearing laughter.
First Deputy Patrick Lee was sifting through reports later that day and recalled yelling an expletive when he came across reports that Carabbacan searched Mueller.
“I was upset,” Lee said in court testimony. “It happened again, and it shouldn’t have happened again.”
Mueller wasn’t able to report the incident until three weeks after it happened. She said jail officials prevented her from reporting the assault.
When she was able to file a report, sheriffs that took the report wrote that what happened to her should be classified as a third degree sex assault.
Carabbacan was placed on leave in late 2014 and fired in 2015.
Then-DPS Director Nolan Espinda based his decision to fire Carabbacan on an internal investigation into the Kumia incident which found that the deputy sheriff violated numerous departmental policies.
Sgt. Michael Murota, who worked in the patrol section of the First Circuit Court, was assigned to conduct administrative investigations of Carabbacan. Murota first took up Kumia’s case.
During the investigation in 2014, Ching, the sheriff’s commander for Circuit Court, told Murota that deputy sheriffs have other options besides conducting searches of female prisoners themselves. They could wait for a female jail guard to come from OCCC.
Or, they could call the District Court downtown, where there were female sheriffs at the time. Ching testified in court that sheriffs would occasionally ask bailiffs or court staff to conduct strip searches. Lee would later testify in court that asking untrained court staff to perform strip searches would violate departmental policy.
Murota found that eight female sheriffs were stationed around Oahu the day Carabbacan searched Kumia. None of the sheriffs at the court cellblock made an attempt to contact any of them.
Murota substantiated Kumia’s version of the events, based on interviews with her, Carabbacan and another sheriff on duty at the time. He found that Carabbacan violated department policy by conducting a strip search on a female detainee.
“Carabbacan compounded the violation of conducting a strip search by physically touching Kumia, while attired in her bra and panty,” Murota wrote.
Murota also chastised Ching, who “did not display any supervision or guidance toward his subordinates when faced with a critical situation.”
He took him to task for not investigating the incident independently. Still, Murota laid much of the blame on Carabbacan.
“Carabbacan’s behavior and conduct was outrageous and unbecoming of a law enforcement officer by conducting a search that no reasonable law enforcement officer would have done in a custodial search,” Murota wrote.
His investigation, which also reviewed department policies, found Carabbacan breached numerous sections of the department’s standards pertaining to the oath of office, code of ethics, loyalty, knowledge of laws, unlawful orders, performance and conduct and mistreatment of prisoners.
Murota submitted his report on Kumia’s incident on Oct. 3, 2014.
By that time, Carabbacan was already placed on leave and disciplinary hearings were set to start soon after in November 2014.
Meanwhile, Murota was still investigating the complaint against Carabbacan by Mueller.
In December of that year, he interviewed Mueller in a separate investigation of her incident. His findings were much the same as in Kumia’s case.
This time, Murota corroborated Mueller’s side of the story with accounts from an inmate who saw the strip search. He also interviewed seven other sheriff deputies assigned to the cellblock with Carabbacan. All but two claimed they didn’t see him search Mueller. Murota determined that some of their accounts were untruthful.
Murota found that Carabbacan violated many of the same policies when he strip searched Kumia. Murota finished his investigation of Mueller’s assault in July 2015.
By then, Carabbacan was already out of the department. Espinda fired him in March 2015 for the Kumia incident. Espinda filed Murota’s investigation into Mueller’s case away for future reference.
Carabbacan doesn’t deny he searched the women, and he doesn’t deny that he touched them. He defended his decisions over the years in depositions, court testimony and interviews with investigators saying that policies weren’t clear on what to do if there are no female sheriffs around to conduct searches and that searches were necessary for safety reasons.
He also disputes the nature of the searches, and has repeatedly denied that what he did constitutes a strip search. In his view, a search only becomes a strip search when an inmate is completely nude with their genitals exposed.
By his own definition, having a woman take off her clothes down to her underwear is not a strip search.
He disputed Kumia and Mueller’s accounts of the 2014 incidents during testimony in court Oct. 28. He denied pulling at their bras to expose their breasts.
“I did not do anything like that. I take off just enough clothing to where I can see the surface to make sure there’s no knives, no gun, no bulges where there aren’t supposed to be bulges. And that’s called a visual inspection,” Carabbacan said.
He said he conducts pat searches or visual searches, but not strip searches.
Carabbacan said he was aware that female deputies were stationed around Oahu when he conducted the two searches in 2014, but he chose not to call those deputies, saying it would be a “waste of time, unnecessary.”
“In my opinion, we weren’t conducting a strip search. So basically, I had no reason to call, although I could have,” he said, adding that doing so would slow down operations at the already overcrowded cellblock.
He claims Kumia and Mueller were combative and “a little mouthy,” and that he had to make sure they didn’t have weapons.
In a 2019 deposition, Carabbacan described a separate incident where sheriffs did not adequately search a female prisoner who brought in a pipe to the cellblock. He said the inmate left the pipe, and another inmate later tried to slit her wrists with it.
He requested a female sheriff be assigned to the cellblock numerous times, but never received a response. He said he felt like the department was trying to set him up for failure, and that Murota, the sheriff who investigated the sex assault allegations, was also out to get him.
In a phone interview Friday, Carabbacan said that he felt “embarrassed, ashamed” when lawsuits were first filed against him.
“But I knew from the get go that I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.
He said the department was revising its Prison Rape Elimination Act policies while he was in charge of the cellblock and conducted the searches of Kumia and Mueller. He said that the department changed its policies during that time to ban male sheriffs from touching females.
Since he didn’t receive updated training in that area, he feels he was unfairly punished.
In 2016, a third-party arbitrator, James Nicholson, agreed with Carabbacan. Nicholson awarded Carabbacan his cellblock job back with back pay. Carabbacan still works as a sheriff assigned to the First Circuit Court, although he is now in the patrol section.
Nicholson’s arbitration decision focused heavily on the varying definitions of a strip search.
Department policy defines a strip search as the “removal and inspection of clothes and a visual inspection of all body surfaces including body areas immediately adjacent to the opening of body cavities.”
Sheriff training staff testified during an arbitration hearing that a strip search was “a removal of clothing that exposes the person’s undergarments.”
Carabbacan understood a strip search to mean that an inmate is fully nude. And that in Kumia’s case, he intended to conduct a pat search. Nicholson, a former chair of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, sided with Carabbacan and his union attorney.
Nicholson found that any other definition of a strip search or a change in what that means was never properly communicated to Carabbacan. Also, because he was never given a practical examination during training, he did not have clear notice of what a strip search is, Nicholson wrote.
Nicholson referenced the incidents of women sneaking contraband into the cellblock. He also recognized that there were other female deputies on duty when Carabbacan conducted his search, but Nicholson concluded that department policies don’t provide clear options and procedures for how a sheriff can request a female deputy to assist him with a strip search.
Nicholson also concluded that the department had no written policies for how to handle HOPE probationers who go out into the public and come back into custody. That left Carabbacan on his own piecing together what to do based on several different department policies.
“In the Arbitrator’s opinion, (the department) ignored the fact that (Carabbacan’s) superiors failed to give him any guidance and left him to use his best judgement to run the cellblock. (Carabbacan) was then terminated for using his own judgement,” Nicholson wrote.
Nicholson said that the department has to provide clear guidance on its policies for its employees.
Nicholson reinstated Carabbacan to his position with back pay in September 2016.
Nicholson didn’t respond to phone messages. Peter Trask, a labor attorney who represented Carabbacan and the Hawaii Government Employees Association during the arbitration proceedings, refused to talk about the case.
Kat Brady, a criminal justice advocate and former New York labor union leader, said DPS needs better training and sees unions as a barrier to change.
“The department is just so mired in bureaucracy, and it’s really hard to move forward,” she said. “It’s hard because they’ve got to negotiate with HGEA and UPW.”
State law enforcement also have less oversight than county police departments. Unlike the departments, there are no independent oversight commissions to oversee hundreds of officers with general police powers employed by state departments.
The Hawaii Law Enforcement Standards Board is trying to establish minimum standards for county police and state law enforcement, but that effort has been stalled for years.
Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and retired University of Hawaii woman’s studies professor, said the state should start taking that board seriously since it is the only agency set up to oversee state law enforcement.
Arbitration, particularly in cases where criminal conduct is alleged, is problematic, she said. She questions unions’ “vigorous defense of people who engage in highly problematic behaviors.”
Arbitration decisions that overturn officer misconduct are prime reasons to get better oversight of law enforcement.
“There’s plenty they could be doing,” Chesney-Lind said of state officers and the AG’s office. “They just need to do their job.”
While Carabbacan was getting his job back, Mueller and Kumia were struggling to navigate the system designed to protect them, court records show.
While Kumia was able to file a grievance quickly, Mueller testified that it took her nearly three weeks to do so. She says she was stonewalled by jail guards and other prison officials.
Both women were also told by guards that they need to exhaust all their administrative remedies before being able to pursue a lawsuit. That meant filing a grievance and waiting for the department to complete an investigation.
Former Public Safety Director Ted Sakai oversaw the implementation of PREA policies in the state. He said in an interview that each housing unit in state facilities should have posters explaining the PREA complaint process, and staff should be trained on how to handle inmate complaints as well as how to report their coworkers if they see anything inappropriate.
Brady questions how closely DPS staff actually follow the PREA policies.
“I think whenever your responsibility is about human life, you have to be super vigilant and you have to be transparent,” she said.
Kumia was not sure how to follow up on the status of her case, according to transcripts of her deposition. She reached out to two lawyers who wouldn’t take her case, and previously said she wasn’t aware of her rights until meeting with her current law firm.
She didn’t know how exactly to proceed, but kept seeking legal advice because she felt what happened to her was wrong.
“I have to stand accountable for whatever decisions I make and anything I do wrong,” she said during a deposition. “Because they’re sheriffs and they’re supposed to protect me … do I just lose my rights because I’m an inmate? Do I lose who I am because of a number or a crime I committed in the past?”
“Right is right and wrong is wrong, and if I have to stand accountable for doing my wrongs, how can they just get away with it?”
But Kumia wouldn’t follow up on her case until November 2017 and file a lawsuit in 2018. A state judge dismissed the case because the two-year statute of limitations on those kinds of accusations expired. Judge Lisa Cataldo didn’t believe Kumia’s circumstances warranted an extension of the statute of limitations.
Mueller also faced delays in pursuing her case. Although the administrative investigation into Carabbacan for her incident was completed in July 2015 she wasn’t informed until July 3, 2017 — exactly three years after her assault.
Mueller received only a letter from the department stating that her investigation was finished and that “corrective action” was taken against Carabbacan. The letter did not say what that corrective action was, and did not mention that by then Carabbacan had already gotten his job back.
Mueller’s attorneys argued that DPS and Espinda conspired to withhold the report to run the clock out on the statute of limitations for her case.
Shelley Harrington, the department’s PREA coordinator at the time, told staff in early 2017 that Mueller’s investigation was still ongoing, according to internal emails made part of the court record.
Court records indicate Espinda reviewed the administrative investigation into Carabbacan’s search of Mueller after the deputy sheriff got his job back in 2016.
State attorneys argued that there was nothing Espinda could do to Carabbacan at that point. The former director testified in court that, although he disagreed with the arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Carabbacan, he couldn’t fire him again for the Mueller incident because the facts in her case were too similar to Kumia’s.
He worried about Carabbacan suing the department.
After weighing all the evidence presented in Mueller’s civil lawsuit, a federal jury on Friday awarded her $7 million in damages, finding Carabbacan and DPS responsible for Mueller’s emotional distress, among other claims.
Correction: A previous version of this story listed Espinda among defendants responsible for claims brought by Mueller. The jury did not find Espinda responsible for Mueller’s claims of cruel and unusual punishment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Mueller said during a deposition in 2019 that she pursued her case because she didn’t want any more women to be touched by male sheriffs.
“That, to me is justice. To have those cameras in the cellblock now and to have female sheriffs down there to meet us. No woman will ever have to worry about ever being touched inappropriately again,” she said.
“Just because we made bad choices in our life doesn’t mean we’re bad people. Sometimes our circumstances … you know, part of living is surviving. But that doesn’t give anybody the right, that works in an agency that is supposed to protect us, to victimize any of us women.”
Read the jury’s verdict below.
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