Oxnard’s Assistant Police Chief Will Testify at Jaywalking Hearing Against Todo Poder Activist

By Raul Hernandez—American Justice Notebook

Assistant Chief Jason Benites

Assistant Chief Jason Benites

A high ranking Oxnard police officer will testify at the hearing of a Francisco Romero, a community activist who claims that he was given five jaywalking tickets because he is a vocal critic of  the recent deaths of residents who were either fatally shot by Oxnard officers or died while in their custody.

Despite objections by prosecutor Susan Park, Commissioner Anthony Sabo sided with Romero’s lawyer Jaime Segall Gutierrez and ruled that Assistant Chief Jason Benites will testify at the next hearing in two weeks.

Sabo wants Benites to testified on who made the decision to give Romero five citations  after an Oct. 13, 2013 protest march.  Romero was video recorded jaywalking by an Oxnard undercover officer in an unmarked police car and learned about the citations through a certified letter sent to his house two weeks later.

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Sabo is hearing a motion filed by Gutierrez at Ventura County Superior Court.  The motion asks the court to dismiss the five jaywalking tickets totaling $1,000 because Gutierrez claims that his client was targeted by police officers, violating Romero’s constitutional rights.

If Sabo rejects the motion to dismiss, he will scheduled a bench trial where witnesses will be called to the stand.

Francisco Romero

Francisco Romero

Romero is a leader at Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective, which has recently spearheaded several protests against police brutality and fatal shootings in Oxnard. Group members also attend City Council meetings to voice their concerns about alleged police abuse and brutality

In an interview, Romero, of Oxnard, said the Oct. 13, 2013 protest march was held because the family of Alfonso Limon’s family approached Pueblo Collective and asked them to hold an anniversary protest march for Limon who was killed  on Oct. 12, 2012 by Oxnard police.  Romero said he agreed to do so to support the family.

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.  Limon and his brother were walking home when they were fired upon by Oxnard officers looking for a wanted parolee.

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office reviewed the Alfonso Limon shooting and ruled that it was “legally justified and not a criminal act.”

Todo Poder al Pueblo, however, want the officers prosecuted or fired for killing an innocent man.

The 2013 march  drew 150 protestors and 95 Oxnard officers, including undercover officers, strike teams, and SWAT units, who were assigned to the march as part of a police plan to maintain security and safety and 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 department also had its Bearcat armored vehicle ready in case it had to be used, according to police documents.

Citing the 1975 Murgia vs. Municipal Court Case, Gutierrez said the Ventura County District Attorney is engaging in selective prosecution of his client.

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.

Oxnard officers have testified that Romero was the only protester given the tickets because he committed flagrant violations that created hazardous situations and put the lives of others in peril.  While Romero was one of three people who were identified by Officer Jaime Miranda who video recorded the march  and many other protesters were jaywalking, officers have testified the video showed that Romero was in a leadership role and his violations were “egregious.”

Defense arguments to put Benites on the stand came after Sgt. Alex Arnett testified on Monday that  the decision to give Romero the five tickets was made at a post-march meeting where Romero’s violations were the focus of the gathering.

Gutierrez  told Sabo that this is the first time he learned about the post-march meeting.

Arnett testified that this meeting was attended by him,  Benites; Scott Whitney, administrative Services Bureau chief; Officers Jaime Miranda and Jamie Brown, Brown’s supervisor; Eric Sonstegard investigations commander and possibly another commander.

“We all came to that decision. I guess you can say it was collective,” said Arnett, adding that Police Chief Jeri Williams wasn’t at the post-march meeting.

In response to a question by Gutierrez, Arnett  said the video of the march also looked like Romero was “facilitating” the march at one intersection.

Arnett who has been an officer for more than 18 years said he didn’t know who Romero was until Miranda identified Romero.  Arnett said he didn’t know why Miranda just identified Romero during the march. Arnett also said Romero violations were more egregious than two other protesters  who were also identified – Elliot Gabriel and Guillermo Ramirez – and Romero put more people in danger.

Prosecutor’s Arguments Against Chief Jason Benites Testifying

In arguing against putting Benites on the stand, Park said he wouldn’t have anything to add about what had already been said by other officers about the reasons why Romero was cited by officers.  Park said Arnett and others have  already testified on how and why the decision was made to  give the jaywalking citations to Romero. She said Arnett described it as a “collective” decision.

Park said Benites will add nothing knew to the testimony.

Gutierrez , however, said Benites was the highest ranking officer at that meeting and decisions at the police department aren’t made by committee.  He said there is a chain-of-command with commanders on top and the rank and file on the bottom.

“It’s a structure,” said Gutierrez.

Commissioner Sabo said he wants Benites to testify who gave the direct order at that post-march meeting to prosecute Romero.

Officer Jess Aragon Testified About the Video Evidence

Officer Jess Aragon testified that he didn’t recall attending a briefing where Incident Action Plan was discussed.  He said he couldn’t recall getting a copy of the Action Plan.

Park asked if Romero encouraged others to violate the law. Aragon said yes.

He said he was in an unmarked police car doing surveillance with Miranda who was video recording.  He said there were “multiple violations” of jaywalking.   Aragon said he didn’t focus on Romero because Todo Poder al Pueblo were protesting the fatal shooting of Limon that Aragon was named as one of the officers who fired at Limon.

The defense is expected to show more video to the court that was taken by Oxnard police.

Oxnard Police Reports and Documents on 2013 March: (Allow 30 seconds or more for Police Reports to Download)

Police Reports on 2013 March and Officer Jamie Brown Letter to Romero

Oxnard Special Enforcement Unit Memorandum on the March

Oxnard Police Department’s March for Justice Incident Action Plan

Photo Credit: Hernandez

Photo Credit: Raul Hernandez

Raul Hernandez has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He has worked at the El Paso Herald-Post, The El Paso Times, The Press Enterprise in Riverside County California and the Ventura County Star in California.

He has worked as a court reporter for more than 18 years.

The first of Raul Hernandez’s three novels, “Stepping on the Devil’s Tail” will be published next Spring.  The other two novels, “The Dead Sea Bar and Grill” and  “The Serape Notebook” will be published in the fall of 2015.  –American Justice Notebook 

 

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