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Court of Appeals Affirms Sexual Assault Conviction of Sheriff’s Deputy

March 22, 2019

In Pierson v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to support a Harris County Sheriff's deputy's conviction for sexual assault on a person in custody.

The Court found that a woman who engaged in consensual sexual acts with the deputy was “in the custody of law enforcement” for purposes of Georgia’s sexual assault statute since, immediately preceding the sexual encounter, the woman had been stopped and detained by the deputy. The Court also affirmed the deputy’s convictions for violating his oath of office despite the fact that the oath was never signed by the deputy as required by law.

The incident began when the deputy stopped the woman for speeding. The two began flirting with each other right away. At some point, the deputy told her that he was only giving her a warning but wanted to “make [her] sweat a little.” She called him an expletive and then laughed and apologized for having “no filter.” They continued to flirt and eventually the deputy told her that, if she wanted to talk more with “no filter,” to pull off the highway at the turnoff up ahead, and that he would follow her.

The woman did not pull off as he suggested and, five minutes later, the deputy activated his blue lights and pulled her over again. He approached her car and told her that he wanted to talk some more. He suggested that they pull down a dirt road. He then deactivated his blue lights as he pulled off of the highway, drove up beside her and told her to follow him. She followed him down the dirt road and parked her car a considerable distance behind his. Her car was not boxed-in by his patrol car in any way. Their accounts of what occurred next varied.

The deputy testified that he pulled her over the second time because he’d been wrong about where the turnoff was. According to him, when he approached her car after this second stop, she told him that she didn’t see where she was supposed to turn. He said after they pulled down the dirt road, she immediately started flirting with him again and they engaged in consensual oral sex.

According to the woman, after they pulled down the dirt road, the deputy pulled her out of the car by her arm, pinched and twisted her nipple and forced her to perform oral sex on him. Despite her testimony, the jury acquitted the deputy on all of the counts in the indictment that were based on the woman’s contention that the sexual encounter was not consensual. He was however convicted of sexual assault by a law enforcement officer on an person in custody.

The Court of Appeals held that despite the jury’s acquittal on the other counts, the Court was still authorized to “view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict.” The Court then held that, “based on this evidence, we conclude that the jury was authorized to find that [the woman] was being detained by the Appellant or kept in his custody to the extent that she was not free to go about her normal activities.”

With regards to the convictions for violating his oath of office, the issue concerned the proper interpretation of the statute which provides punishment for “[a]ny public officer who willfully and intentionally violates the terms of his oath as prescribed by law…” The question on appeal was whether the phrase “as prescribed by law” modifies just the terms of the oath, or the oath as well. The Court held that “a plain reading of [the statute] shows that the phrase…refers specifically to the terms of the oath itself, not the manner in which the oath had to be administered or memorialized.”

This is significant because it was undisputed that the deputy’s oath was never signed. The statute governing oaths of public officers provides that the oaths “shall be written and subscribed by the persons taking them and accompanied by the certificate of such officer, which shall specify the day and year taken.” The court held that, pretermitting whether this was required for the deputy’s oath, the statute only requires the terms of the oath to be as prescribed by law, not the actual administration of the oath. Therefore, regardless of whether the deputy’s oath was administered lawfully, the Court held that he could still be convicted of the felony offense for violating the terms of it.

As a result, the defendant’s convictions for sexual assault and violation of his oath of office were affirmed.

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