(re-posted with permission of author, photos and video added by Colectivo)
BY RAUL HERNANDEZ
American Justice Notebook Reporter
VENTURA, CALIFORNIA — A defense lawyer wants a judge to dismiss the year-old jaywalking case – the People vs. Francisco Romero – because, he says, Oxnard police targeted Romero who is a vocal critic on police brutality.
Prosecutors, however, argue that Romero was identified and video-recorded jaywalking five times, failing to yield to vehicles during a protest march held in October 2013 against police brutality and abuse. A week later, he received a certified letter stating that he had been given five citations, which have fines totaling as much as $1,000.
Tuesday, Romero’s lawyer Jaime Segall Gutierrez, of Whittier, and Deputy District Attorney Susan Park were in a court hearing in Commissioner Anthony Sabo’s court at Ventura County Superior Court. Gutierrez filed a motion to toss out Romero’s five jaywalking citations, citing constitutional issues.
Defense witnesses subpoenaed for this hearing which began Tuesday include a dozen Oxnard police officers and some family members of victims fatally shot by Oxnard police or who have died while under police custody in Oxnard.
Only one witness testified Tuesday, Oxnard’s Police Department’s Operations Chief Eric Sonstegard, who put together a plan on how law enforcement would handle the October 13, 2013 march.
The hearing was postponed until Oct. 29 because of Commissioner Sabo’s conflicting court schedule.
The trial has been tentatively set for Nov. 5.
After months of legal haggling, a handful of judges making rulings on the matter and several prosecutors assigned to handle the legal proceeding, the case is now being prosecuted by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office after Oxnard city attorneys turned it over to them.
The defense’s case file that includes court documents and police reports is nearly six-inches wide.
In an interview, Park said she didn’t know whether this was the first jaywalking case that has taken a year to prosecute or whether other jaywalking prosecutions have included police surveillance video recordings as evidence. Park said if she had this information, she probably couldn’t release it while Romero’s case is pending.
Gutierrez claims they had to go to court three times to get video tapes from the city of Oxnard after judges ordered prosecutors to turn them over to the defense as part of the discovery process, which is when both sides exchange information. Gutierrez blames the police department for “dragging their feet” to give them the surveillance videos.
“This is all that we have,” Gutierrez said prosecutors told him, accusing the Oxnard Police Department of hiding evidence from him and prosecutors.
Gutierrez maintains that police targeted his client to simply silence Romero who often goes to city council meetings to speak about police abuse and brutality. Gutierrez noted that Romero ran for the Oxnard City Council in 2006 and got 7,000 votes.
The 1975 Murgia vs. Municipal Court Case
Gutierrez told Sabo that “selective enforcement” violates Romero’s constitutional rights of equal protection under the law, citing the 1975 Murgia vs. Municipal Court case to support the defense’s motion to dismiss.
The California Supreme Court ruled in the Murgia case that a defendant may be entitled to a dismissal of criminal charges if they can prove that there was selective prosecution for improper purposes.
Gutierrez said Romero was the only person to be cited for jaywalking during the peaceful protest, saying that his client was helping others cross the street in a safe manner.
In response to Gutierrez’s motion to dismiss the case, Park stated in a nine-page document that Romero was the only one given the jaywalking infractions because nobody else violating the law could be identified. Also police knew Romero’s address where they could mail the citations, Park said.
“He was observed leading others to break the law by failing to yield to vehicles in the roadway and leading others to do the same,” Park stated. “He placed the lives of 150 of the participants of the march in danger but also putting drivers and others standing by on the road that day in danger.”
Romero’s case began when he received a letter dated Oct. 29, 2013 from the Oxnard Police Department. Romero, who is one of the leaders of the Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective, learned that he had been given the five citations and video recorded by an undercover Oxnard police officer who was driving a vehicle and assigned to monitor the Oct. 13, 2013 march.
The 2013 Protest March and the Oct. 12, 2014 Protest
The 2013 protest drew 150 protestors and 95 Oxnard officers, including undercover officers and SWAT units who were assigned to the march as part of a police plan to keep tabs on the demonstrators, according to law enforcement documents. Uniformed police weren’t visible during the two-mile trek, which began at Camino del Sol Park and ended in front of police headquarters.
The march was also held to protest the fatal shooting by police of Alfonso Limon Jr., a year earlier on Oct. 12, 2012. Limon and his brother got caught up in a running gun battle between police and a wanted parolee in a predominately low-income neighborhood, La Colonia in Oxnard.
The March Against Police Brutality in Oxnard on Oct. 12, 2014 tied up traffic briefly but it was peaceful as about 150 protesters walked from Camino del Sol Park in La Colonia to the downtown police department headquarters where the group gave speeches.Six makeshift coffins represented people who died while under police custody or were fatally shot by officers were carried by protestors to police headquarters.
Pueblo Collective along with Limon’s family are demanding that officers involved in the shooting of Limon be held accountable.
The shooting of 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. Limon was shot between 16 to 21 times by four officers as he lay on the ground, according to the Limon family lawyer Adam Shea.
Gerardo Limon who was with his brother when he was fatally shot is still traumatized and hasn’t talked to his family about the shooting, according to Elliot Gabriel, a spokesman for Pueblo Collective.
The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office reviewed the Alfonso Limon shooting and ruled that it was “legally justified and not a criminal act.”
Police Operations Chief Eric Sonstegard Testimony
Oxnard Police Chief Eric Sonstegard testified at Tuesday’s hearing for nearly an hour about a plan he and other commanders put together. He said the plan was to make sure protesters were allowed to exercise their constitutional rights and address public safety concerns. He testified that he is aware of Pueblo Collective because of the Internet but isn’t familiar with what their “mission statement is.” Sonstegard said the protesters didn’t have a permit to march.
Gutierrez’s questioning focused on Romero and what Sonstegard knew about him and his activities. Sonsgtegard described how Romero impeded traffic. He testified that he couldn’t say whether Romero was helping people cross the streets.
“He was standing out in the middle of Oxnard Boulevard blocking traffic,” Sonstegard said. “There were other people in the middle of the road.”
Sonstegard said Romero was encouraging others to break the law by walking in the middle of the street and stopping traffic. He said there have recently been six or seven Pueblo Collective protest marches.
“I think I’ve been at five of them,” said Sonstejard, adding that it was difficult to identify other people on Oct. 13, 2013.
“We are aware of Mr. Romero. We know who he is,” Sonstegard testified. He said police officers, however, weren’t focused on Romero during the march.