Former deputy’s ironic new career
November 30, 2011
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
The central figure in an illegal raid by San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputies that violated the rights of a county resident is now a local defense attorney, handling cases for indigents and getting paid by the county public defender’s office.
Darren Christopher Murphy, in his first public comment since the recorded 2008 raid at the home of Matt Hart, confirmed Tuesday he is getting defense cases assigned to him by Superior Court Judge Michael Duffy. Murphy retired from the sheriff’s department last year and started a law practice.
Murphy was a career deputy with a law degree when he led a group of heavily-armed deputies onto Hart’s property after responding to a “shots fired” call. Finding Hart target-shooting — a lawful activity in the rural area — the deputies handcuffed him in his yard and crashed into his home, without a warrant.
The ensuing events — spanning more than three hours — were captured by the deputies’ own video and audio recorders and provided a chilling and indisputable account of their behavior. Afterwards, Murphy and the others could clearly be heard discussing at length possible justifications for their entry into Hart’s two-plus acre property, then into his house, and then into his locked gun safe, where they found and confiscated an assortment of valuable, legally-registered firearms.
The deputies, along with a detective, then pondered possible criminal charges against Hart in order to explain their actions.
Hart was charged with a variety of felonies and misdemeanors, all eventually dismissed except for “disturbing the peace.” Facing prosecutors’ threats of additional felony charges, Hart agreed not to sue the county, and his confiscated guns were eventually returned — with one gun missing its receiver.
A 22-minute video report entitled “The Hart Locker” was produced by KCCN.tv in July 2010 after copies of the sheriff’s recording were obtained. The video went viral with more than 2.7 million views worldwide. However, subsequent reaction to the deputies’ deeds by officials in San Luis Obispo County was negligible.
During a brief telephone interview, Murphy called the incident “old news” and also claimed for the first time that he felt threatened by homeowner Hart because “I thought the man tried to shoot at me.”
He also said, “I did what I thought was right at the time.”
Murphy acknowledged the search’s illegality: “The judge (Superior Court Judge Dodie A. Harman) ruled that evidence was taken in violation of (Hart’s) rights. In retrospect, should I have gotten a warrant? Certainly.”
He was critical of KCCN.tv’s reporting, calling it “a bit slanted, and (it) left out a lot of very relevant information.” Murphy said the video report suggested that he “just trampled over the man’s rights, that it was some kind of conspiracy, when in fact we step by step tried to rationalize everything we did.”
The new defender of the downtrodden then added, “Hart had an opportunity to sue us, to have his day in court, but he chose instead to take it to the court of public opinion.”
Murphy penned a letter in the Dec. 2010 issue of Playboy magazine, noting that “when the citizenry uses tools intended to protect all parties to wrongfully attack officers, the incentive to put your ass on the line is greatly diminished.”
He left the sheriff’s department shortly after that letter was published.
San Luis Obispo attorney Lou Koory, whose interview was featured in “The Hart Locker,” said that Murphy “now has an ethical duty to zealously defend the rights of the accused, whatever his philosophy. And he’ll be tested soon enough.”