The Downfall of Paul Tanaka

Former LASD Undersheriff Paul Tanaka Appeals to SCOTUS Hoping to Reverse Criminal Conviction

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Paul Tanaka, the once feared and powerful former second in command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, has filed an appeal with the United States Supreme Court in the hope of getting the court to reverse his April 5, 2016 conviction for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

As a result of the conviction, the former undersheriff was sentenced to five years in a low-security federal prison camp in Englewood, Colorado, where he has been since January of this year.

Tanaka and his attorneys already appealed his conviction to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but after a hearing before a three-judge panel in early August 2017, that appeal was denied later than same month.

Bad instructions & Bad Character

During Mr. Tanaka’s trial, as you may remember, the government alleged, among other things, that the former undersheriff helped hide a inmate/federal informant Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers in an effort to obstruct a federal grand jury investigation into corruption and brutality in the county’s troubled jail system.

In the just-filed petition to be heard by the nation’s highest court, Tanaka’s attorney, Charles M. Sevilla, made one primary argument for the hoped-for reversal of his client’s conviction. The argument pertains to a portion of the multi-page instructions U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson gave the jury in Tanaka’s trial immediately before the jurors began their deliberation. Sevilla called this fragment of the lengthy instructions the “dual intent” instruction.

The jury instruction in question had to do with with one element of the court’s definition of the charge of obstruction of justice. It reads as follows:

The government need not prove that the defendant’s sole or even primary purpose was to obstruct justice so long as it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that one of the defendant’s purposes was to obstruct justice. The defendant’s purpose of obstructing justice must be more than merely incidental.

Attorney Sevilla argued in the 25-page petition to the high court that this dual instruction portion of the jury instructions opened his client up to wrongful conviction because, “this jury could have found that” Mr. Tanaka’s “dominant and driving purpose was innocent, but still convicted if he had an added insubstantial obstructive purpose.”

Sevilla went on to argue that the prosecution’s case was incredibly weak, but with the so-called dual instruction, the government was able to get a conviction, basically only through “character assassination.”

The Vikings problem

To illustrate the point, Sevilla described the government’s line of questioning about Tanaka’s membership in the notorious deputy group The Vikings, which the attorney described as wrongfully damaging to his client.

“…the trial court twice instructed that this non-existent ‘gang’ evidence could be used against petitioner on the issue of credibility and the element of his intent. In this manner, the error in the use of the “gang” evidence worked its way into the minimalist intent instruction to make the latter instruction the pathway to a wrongful conviction.”

(WLA wrote about that portion of the trial here.)

Tanaka’s attorney similarly wrote that, as part of the government’s case, Mr. Tanaka was wrongfully “blamed for a history of inmate abuses at the Men’s Central Jail despite the fact that he wasn’t in charge of the jail during the time several lawsuits were filed…”

It’s an interesting and cogently-written argument—and different from the argument Sevilla made to the 9th Circuit (which we wrote about here).

The 9th Circuit, however, turned Tanaka down, hence the appeal to the Supremes.

We will, of course, be following further events as they unfold.

So, as usual….stay tuned.

Photo above of Tanaka talking to press after testimony at federal trial of another LASD defendant.


  • C: First, are you writing a book? Second, the initial argument is logical but does not pass the test of legal reversal, in my view. Last, what planet was the attorney on to propose that the thug Viking Gang was non existent? Ask the two prior Undersheriff’s (before Paul)if they have tatoo’s?

  • Winter will soon be upon us Paul, here in the Rocky Mountains and you are just finishing your first year in the Big House. Only 4 more to go. Meanwhile, your attorney is making bank off of you. The best you can hope for on the longest of long shots is a retrial, another conviction and another long prison sentence. As long as you are in prison, no one cares, you are just a distant nightmare memory. Your crew are mostly retired and don’t even give you a second thought. Outstanding investigative journalism by WLA exposed you and the Feds smacked you down. I’ve got two cords of Colorado timber cut and stacked for the winter, for when I’m here and not traveling to warmer weather. You enjoy your holidays Paul and think about how you arrived at where you are, and all the good people you hurt getting there. And more so, an institution you and Lee all but destroyed. Listen, I hear Silent Night on the radio.

  • Unfortunately there are still remnants of Paul Boy, however they haven’t been called out due to the blinders of McBuckles. But yes, you’re correct with his crew moving on with distance memories of the little man. All of your posts have been “spot on”.

  • There are plenty of reminents of Paul around. The 2 captains at TTCF are a perfect example of that. Totally useless but always on the coattails of others.
    I’m sure they will soon be promoted to a position they are not qualified for. But when you pay to play, pass out flyers, and remodel kitchens, the pay-off is a promotion.

  • Add to your list, the commander of special operations. She is a moron, yet she makes commander because she did Tanaka’s dirty work. And McDonnell does nothing.

  • I’ve been out of the LASD for quite a while now, so I must ask: are there clear criteria for promotion?

  • Maybe if ALADS Board had deputies that didn’t sway with the wind, maybe just maybe, we can get LASD back on track.

  • Time 4 Change…so true. It’s like a bad bug infestation…no matter how hard you true you can never get rid of all the vermin. So many executives from FOR II still running and gunning, taking care of their folks and those who lick their boots. I do think the infestation is most severe in custody right now. They are trying to maneuver and re-establish themselves in patrol though. Watch out for Patrol.

  • It’s a shame the Sheriff, who I believe may have honorable intentions, is either totally naive to the complex devious machinations of the Department or just doesn’t care and sees the position as a mere stepping stone and means to his ends. I would hope he did learn from the Baca/Tanaka downfall that although he may think he is so far removed from the mud pit, you can’t always find a low level supervisor/deputy scapegoat to pin your sins on and sacrifice to the public. If you allow disease to circulate around you, you will eventually get sick to. The buck still ultimately rests with the Big Cheese, Head Honcho, Big Kahuna, Commandant of the organisation.

  • The time allotted for talking is past due.
    There are now two options to move forward with LASD. Get behind the two candidates from LASD which would be Lindsey or Villanueva. The deputies union, ALADS should put their personal agendas aside and get ready to push what’s truly important >A new Sheriff.

  • @ T4C….It’s ironic that while there is no Tanaka present, his trolls are still in the trenches. Coincidentally I’m reading how ALADS dumped Richard “Dick” Shinee, but retained the team of attorneys that worked for him. Amazing how everything eventually comes to light at some point or another.

  • The problem with both LASD unions is simple…it’s directors/representatives are made up of actively employed..coin holding…cigar smoking…in-the-car climbers. You can’t expect much from a deputy who hopes to be a sergeant (not in custody), get a specialized coveted gig or lieutenant who wants to be a captain, to really press hard against the proverbial hand that feeds him. The unions are two intertwined with the department and we all know, if during your tenure in the union you do in fact fight hard against the executives, there will be significant career ending retaliation once your voted out and back in service.

    No hope.

  • If Lindsey or Villanueva does get elected, I will encourage many young people to join LASD, which I never did previously for obvious reasons. I would also encourage them to get their own legal representation which is readily available. That’s a “no brainer”.

  • This one should go fast. His request for certiorari is set for conference on December 1st. The Court tends to publish their decisions soon afterwards.

    The odds are pretty long against Mr. Tanaka. The Court grants certiorari in only a small percentage of cases, and those tend to be ones that present compelling legal issues, or where multiple circuits have issued conflicting rulings on an issue. Neither is the case here.

  • T.M.I

    I care about Tanaka, and I’m someone.

    The leadership issues of this whole fiasco are just a little too important for one to pass up the opportunity to learn from them.

  • I agree…the past mistakes, blunders, criminal acts and downfall of the powerful should always be remembered and thought of as a historical teachable moment. If we rush to forget, ignore or obliterate all vestiges of these misdeeds the can not only be repeated but also the wiped clean and sanitized from our history.

    Just as confederate monuments or other unsavory relics of our countries history should remain, so should the full story of former undersheriff Tanaka’s fall from his thrown remain relevant.

  • While great to have the technical and legal viewpoints for a “Teachable Moment”, the synopsis is better told by those whose lives, families and careers were destroyed by Tanaka. The pictures of the Holocaust were documented evidence but more riveting was the story told by the survivors. Truth reigns.

  • McBlinders needs to pull the donaters list and get rid, demote, or fire all the Tanaka supporters who were promoted for their tattoo or donation$$$.
    Captains, Commanders, and Chief from the Tanaka days are still making the decisions for promotions and placement.
    ELA station was never a Tanaka supporter station, now most of the hand picked Sgt’s and Lt’s were previously assigned at Century station and making changes as Tanaka wanted it done.
    It’s a shame the Sheriff had no clue and wishes not to face the truth, similar to the babbling idiot, Baca.

  • LASD, PPOA & ALADS all have elections. PPOA is already locked in with their new board. ALADS will have their new board tommorow. Sheriff election is next year. With that being said, if changes are not made within all three elections, then it is no use complaining. Do a lateral transfer or retire. No crying.

  • You’re right about Tanaka’s “Fedayeen” (a reference to the Fedayeen Saddam that Saddam Hussein used to keep his ranks in line). But there’s a problem with simply “cleaning house.” Tanaka was a very smart man and he selected people who, for the most part, were quite capable. Some did their jobs honorably, and many compromised on ethics in order to accomplish what Tanaka wanted (and several went to prison as a result). For those that did their jobs honorably, we can’t really tell if that was because of their ethics, or because those ethics were never challenged.

    But if Sheriff McDonnell were simply to remove all of the former Fedayeen, there would be a very tremendous vacuum of management ability that would be difficult to summarily fill. We’ve already seen what happens at the line deputy level when you fill in with second string players. You don’t want to see than in management. At the same time, can you really trust the Fedayeen to act ethically when challenged?

    Tanaka and Baca did a lot of lasting harm to the LASD that will take some time to heal. I haven’t seen Sheriff McDonnell make any substantial progress. I haven’t seen him do anything dishonorable, but the demands of his position are much greater. At his rank, nonfeasance is just as bad as misfeasance. I’m pleased to see Bob Lindsey in the race, but he’s got a very uphill battle.

  • The Department is loosing deputies and custody assistants to other agencies at a pretty good pace. I don’t know the numbers but see it. Most of them are early in their careers though.

    The problem is for those folks who have too much time on but not enough time to retire, supervisory rank or lack the energy to go through a exhaustive background process. Those folks are just left stuck, frustrated and disgusted to see the Department sink to new lows.

    As they say, “the 15th and 30th, that’s all you need to worry about” I guess.

  • Rick D., although I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughtful commentary and interesting analogy using the Fedayeen, I think you’re letting Sheriff McDonnell off easy on this one. No doubt, he inherited a mess, created by the little man. But he also inherited a vast pool of extremely talented men and women who were the backbone of the Department. Many (if not most) had been banished to lieutenant purgatory (probably including you) by Paul or a member of his Fedayeen. These talented men and women (at all ranks) stood by ready and willing to help right the ship. They eventually got tired of waiting, and watching Paul’s Fedayeen continue to promote and reek havoc. They eventually took their frustrations to LACERA and are now enjoying a well earned retirement. Sheriff McDonnell owns this one. His failure was not recognizing and empowering that pool of dedicated men and women that awaited leadership and direction. Bob Lindsey 10-19 HOJJ.

  • SCOTUS ruling on agency shop within unions next year will determine who does what and how much. ALADS will no longer be a financial giant as deputies hands will not be forced to dues. ALADS’s stamp of approval will not be as strong when the masses opt out.

  • Spot on, BS. McD has the pink slip to the post-Tanaka administration. Just glad to be retired and breathing clean Colorado air.

  • @ Spade: Be it a pink slip or stolen rollin, it wouldn’t matter because no one is doing anything about it. Pretty much the same bus with a different driver.

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