BY RAUL HERNANDEZ
The lawyer representing a community activist who was given five jaywalking tickets after a protest march against police fatal shootings in Oxnard plans to file a civil rights lawsuit against the police department.
Attorney Jaime Segall-Gutierrez, of Whittier, who represented defendant Francisco Romero, said the police department, the District Attorney’s Office and the city of Oxnard violated his client’s constitutional rights along with maliciously prosecuting him.
The decision to file a lawsuit comes in the wake of Commissioner Anthony Sabo’s ruling last month after a two-day trial. Sabo dismissed five jaywalking tickets against Francisco Romero, a leader of Todo Poder al Pueblo, a community activist organization.
The group has been active and vocal in protesting recent police killings in Oxnard.
Assistant Police Chief Eric Sonstegard said Monday that this is the first time he’s heard about a possible lawsuit.
“I am not quite sure what any of that means or where they see that in the set of facts that were in play in this case,” he said.
Sonstegard said he had no further comment on that issue.
Commissioner Sabo, who presided over the trial, stated that police failed to follow their own March for Justice — Incident Action Plan on how to handle the protestors that included asking them to voluntarily comply with the law during the protest before citing or arresting anyone.
Sabo noted no court testimony indicated that police ordered the marchers not to walk in the streets in a way that would interfere with traffic. He stated that it appears that the Oxnard police didn’t follow their own plan and take “steps outlined” in the plan before issuing the five citations.
Sabo cautioned that his ruling shouldn’t mean that people are free to jaywalk or interfere with traffic.
Sonstegard said the police department is disappointed with Sabo’s decision and disagrees with it.
Before and during the 2013 protest, Sonstegard said Oxnard police officers used restraint.
“We were surprised that the judge ruled in the manner which he did,” said Sonstegard. “We wanted to allow the group to do whatever they could in a safe manner and without having us be involved.”
Police testified that their surveillance video recordings prove that Romero was involved in leading the crowd to commit jaywalking that stopped traffic, including temporary blocking Oxnard boulevard intersection while protestors crossed the busy street when the traffic light was green.
There were between 150 to 200 “March for Justice” protestors who walked the two-mile trek from Camino Del Sol Park to the Oxnard Police Department and back, according to court testimony.
The protestors marched to condemn the fatal shootings of people killed by police: Alfonso Limon Jr and Jose Zepeda in Oct. 13, 2012. Before Limon was killed, Robert Ramirez Jr. died June 2012 under police custody, followed by the slaying of Michael Mahoney in August 2012.
The protest was peaceful, there were no arrests or injuries, and nobody else got any traffic tickets with the exception of Romero, court testimony indicated.
Romero testified that he was there to make sure that the protestors were safe and to help them cross the street without getting struck by cars. He said he had been involved in 50 prior protest marches in Oxnard, knows the routes protests take and is familiar with potential traffic hazards.
He said the family of victim Limon contacted him about holding an anniversary protest march to commemorate Limon’s death.
The judge sided with Romero regarding his involvement, stating that the videos appear to indicate that Romero was “more focused on the safety of the demonstrators” than being involved in the protest.
The Defense and Sabo’s Decision
Gutierrez doesn’t understand Commissioner Sabo’s decision.
“I am not sure how that translates legally,” Gutierrez said “He said, ‘they didn’t follow their plan so they lost.”
Initially, Gutierrez will file a claim for damages with the city of Oxnard. If the claim is rejected, he said he will sue the police and the city of Oxnard in federal court.
“We were in retreat and fighting. Now, they are in retreat, and we are going after them,” said Gutierrez.
Adding, “We want the public to know that they can stand up to law enforcement. That they have rights.”
Ventura County Chief Deputy District Attorney Chuck Hughes said last week he couldn’t comment on this jaywalking case because he didn’t have all the facts pertaining to this complex case. Also he said the prosecutor who tried the case, Jennifer Sihn, resigned two weeks ago.
Hughes didn’t know whether Romero’s jaywalking case was the most time and resources that the District Attorney’s Office’s spent to prosecute jaywalking infractions.
Gutierrez, who is friends with Romero, said he took the case pro bono because he believed it was an injustice what the Oxnard Police Department and prosecutors did to his client.
“They figure that by going after Romero they cut the head off the snake. But all it did was give us an audience, and we have the law on our side,” he said.
Romero got the jaywalking citations in the mail two weeks after the Oct. 13, 2013 protest. He testified the fines totaled about $1,000.
The jaywalking case has been in the courts for more than two years because of stop and start pre-trial hearings in this case; the filing of legal motions; issuing of subpoenas; discovery issues; unrelated and conflicting judicial matters involving Commissioner Sabo’s court and other delays.
Several witnesses including police officers were called to testify.
During closing arguments in October, then Deputy District Attorney Sihn told Sabo that Romero was caught walking against a red traffic light, walking between vehicles and standing in the middle of the street as cars stopped or drove by.
Sihn went through the five video clips taken by undercover police officers and pointed out to the court the alleged traffic violations.
Gutierrez maintained that police targeted Romero because he represents an “articulate and charismatic voice” for many people in the community. He said it is “unbelievable” that Oxnard police couldn’t identify anybody else from hundreds of people who participated in the protest march.
“If it had been a march against the war or a march for farmworkers, my client wouldn’t have gotten tickets. But because it was against them (police) it was embarrassing them. This is their reaction,” he said.
Gutierrez said the community is tired of the “witch hunt” where police go after leaders who give people a voice, especially in poor communities.
Commissioner Sabo and the appeals court ruled that police didn’t single out Romero.
Sonstegard said it’s “ridiculous” to allege that Romero was targeted.
“Mr. Romero was standing out in the middle of Oxnard Boulevard, a state highway, one of the busiest streets in Ventura County. So, he’s responsible for his actions,” he said. “We don’t target anybody, and we won’t in the future.”
Gutierrez filed a Murgia Motion, citing selective prosecution. But it was rejected by Sabo and the appeals court.
The California Supreme Court ruled in the Murgia case that a defendant may be entitled to a dismissal of criminal charges if he can prove that there was selective prosecution for improper purposes.
If the jaywalking case had ended up at the California Supreme Court, Gutierrez believes Romero would have won, and this would have embarrassed Commissioner Sabo, the District Attorney’s Office and the Oxnard Police Department.
Adding, that it would have also set legal precedent, adopting new rules that state courts must use in similar issues or facts.
Oxnard Pays Million for other Recent Civil Rights Lawsuits
The city of Oxnard has had to pay millions to settle one wrongful death lawsuit, and most recently, a federal jury ruled against Oxnard in another wrongful death suit.
In June, a federal jury awarded the family of Robert Ramirez $2.9 million as damages as a result of a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Oxnard Police Department.
Ramirez died while under police custody and after ingesting methamphetamine. The county medical examiner determined that the cause of death was homicide by asphyxiation.
The shooting of Alfonso Limon resulted in the city of Oxnard having to pay $6.7 million to settle the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Limon’s family which is the largest wrongful death settlement for the city of Oxnard.
Witnesses saw police shooting Alfonso Limon several times and frantically yelled at police to stop because he was unarmed. A witness recorded the incident through a cell phone camera.
In March, 26-year-old Meagan Hockaday of Oxnard was killed by Oxnard police.
Police and Community relations “strong”
Sonstegard described the relationship between police and the community as “strong” and better than it has been in the past.
“Our officers that work for the Oxnard Police Department are extremely vested,” he said.
He said many officers live in Oxnard and volunteer at several community and neighborhood groups
Noting that there are people and groups in the community that don’t trust the police department like Todo Poder al Pueblo.
“We try to make every effort to show them that they can trust us,” he said.
Also Sonstegard said the police department finally got funding within the last three months through the city council for body-worn cameras.
“We anticipate the body-worn cameras probably going operational on a small segment of officers in the field probably April or May of this year,” he said.
Nonetheless, there is very little communication and a lot of mistrust between the police and Todo Poder al Pueblo, according to Sonstegard. He said the group insists that they don’t want to speak to police on an informal basis but in a formal setting like at City Council meetings.
“We’ve made several attempts to talk to them but that’s not what they are comfortable in doing right now,” he said.
Gutierrez said law enforcement along with the courts and judges are essential to the criminal justice system.
“But we don’t need the abuse. We don’t need the racism,” he said, adding that the high rate of police fatal shootings in Oxnard is unacceptable.