Critic of Oxnard police will get his day in court: “Murgia Past and Present”

by Prof. Frank P. Barajas

Francisco Romero charges the Oxnard Police Department with retaliatory intimidation as he contests five citations for his participation in a march against police brutality on Oct. 13, 2013.

An obscure 1975 California Supreme Court case, Murgia v. Municipal Court, serves as the basis for his complaint. In this decision, the justices unanimously found that the Kern County Sheriff’s Department violated the equal protection clauses of the U.S. and state constitutions against selective enforcement.

In its ruling, the court recognized the context of the case in which Jose Guadalupe Murguia, an organizer, and his fellow United Farm Workers unionists, had been invidiously (unjustifiably) targeted by law enforcement. But when Teamsters — who agreed to sweetheart contracts with growers — and private agents of the agricultural industry violated the law, sheriff’s deputies chose not to take action.

As in Murgia, circumstantial evidence validates Romero’s claim. For example, as a member of Toda Poder Al Pueblo (All Power to the People), a grass roots civil rights organization in Ventura County, Romero previously participated in demonstrations against police brutality.

Before the Oct. 13 protest for which the Oxnard Police Department cited Romero, a larger event occurred the year before on Oct. 22, 2012, as part of a protest titled A National Day of Action Against Police Brutality.

About a week before the 2012 event, OPD officers killed Alfonso Limon Jr. in the barrio community of La Colonia. He was an innocent bystander who walked into a confrontation between police and an armed suspect.

Close to, if not over, 1,000 people joined the National Day of Action in Oxnard. These protesters assembled at a park in La Colonia, and then marched to the site where police officers shot Limon. Then the demonstrators continued their march to the OPD station. [see our analysis here — CTPaP]

On the way, the demonstrators clogged traffic on the city’s main boulevard.

Once at OPD headquarters, half the crowd expressed its fury at the front of the building. The others jeered officers through the south-side gate of the station’s parking lot.

While the OPD publicly recognized the right of people to peacefully demonstrate, it also communicated its intention to protect the safety of pedestrians and motorists.

This is the context of Romero’s case.

In an unsuccessful Murgia motion by Romero to have the citations dismissed, Commissioner Anthony Sabo ruled that the OPD did not issue the jaywalking citations with invidious discrimination as there “was no showing the defendant was targeted for prosecution for any reason other than … officers were able to identify him and observe his actions on video.”

This is an intriguing ruling as the audio in the OPD surveillance video obtained by Romero’s attorney, James P. Segall-Gutierrez, under a Murgia discovery motion, evidences the police identifying Romero by name as well as other protesters in the Oct. 13 march who were not cited.

Supporters of Romero feel that the OPD would have overlooked his minor offense if he had not been a prominent critic of its conduct.

A trial is scheduled to begin in August. If it is not decided in Romero’s favor, he vows to appeal the case under the Murgia motion against selective enforcement.​

Professor Frank P. Barajas is a Professor in the History Program at California State University Channel Islands. He is the author of Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961 (Race and Ethnicity in the American West). This article was also published in the Ventura County Star and on his blog: http://frankpbarajas.blogspot.com/ . Republished here with the author’s permission.

 

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