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Eyewitness accounts differ from sheriff's officials over deputy's detaining of court spokeswoman

January 27, 2010 |  1:58 pm

A Los Angeles County Superior Court spokeswoman wearing official identification badges was grabbed by a sheriff’s deputy in a downtown courtroom and pushed hard against a wall with her arms pulled behind her before being handcuffed, according to eyewitnesses.

Sheriff’s officials have launched an internal affairs investigation into why the deputy detained and handcuffed Vania Stuelp, a deputy public information officer. Stuelp, who sought medical treatment after the incident, has filed a complaint about the deputy’s tactics, sources said.

Sheriff’s officials say Stuelp was detained Tuesday after refusing to follow the deputy’s instructions to leave an area in the courtroom usually occupied by lawyers. Stuelp was not arrested and court was not in session at the time.

Accounts by a French journalist and cameraman present at the time of the incident differ from sheriff’s statements based on the agency’s preliminary investigation. Sheriff’s officials say Stuelp was not pushed against the wall and that the deputy only touched her on the arm before handcuffing her.

The incident occurred shortly before 9 a.m. Tuesday when Stuelp became concerned that the French television crew was violating court regulations that prohibit filming in certain areas of the court house.

Stuelp informed the crew they could not film in the courtroom and asked for their footage.

Sylvain Pak, a Paris-based journalist, said Stuelp was inside the courtroom and talking on her cellphone when the deputy confronted her and told her to be quiet and move out. He said Stuelp was wearing several court identity cards and told the deputy that she worked there. Pak said the deputy responded by grabbing her arm.

"She was stunned," Pak said. As the deputy pushed her toward the back wall of the courtroom, Stuelp screamed, he said.

"He grabbed her and he pushed her hard into the wall," Pak said. The deputy was also pulling her arms behind her back so she could not brace her contact with the wall, the journalist said. 

A cameraman who accompanied Pak gave a similar account of what happened. Pak and his colleague said the deputy told the woman something to the effect that "this is my courtroom," during the incident.

Investigators with the sheriff’s department and the county Office of Independent Review would like to talk to any eyewitnesses to the events, said Steve Whitmore, a department spokesman.

When Stuelp entered the well area of the courtroom, a deputy district attorney objected to her presence, Whitmore said. Stuelp insisted she had the right to be there, so the prosecutor asked the deputy to deal with the issue, he said.

When Stuelp repeatedly refused to leave, the deputy then "put his hand on her arm to escort her out," Whitmore said. At that point, she was "detained, handcuffed and sat down in the court," Whitmore said.

A sheriff’s sergeant arrived and recognized her as the court spokesperson and directed that she be released, he said.

-- Richard Winton