On April 26, 2017, Ramiro Huerta — according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on his behalf — was assaulted in a surprise attack by several deputies of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department after he called for assistance to his rural Strathmore home.
Now, more than a year after the incident, Huerta and his attorneys are fighting a series of minor misdemeanor criminal charges filed against him by the Tulare County District Attorney.
The allegations against Huerta include making unlawful 911 calls and resisting arrest. A trial date is set in the matters for December 4 at the Tulare County Superior Court in Porterville.
Obstruction and Intimidation
The move by the DA’s office, says Matthew Owdom, who represents Huerta in both the civil and criminal matters, is an attempt to intimidate his client and slow discovery of evidence in the pending federal civil rights case.
“They filed these BS charges after the (civil rights) lawsuit was filed,” Owdom said. “They initiated a
brand-new prosecution six months after the incident in an effort to get Mr. Huerta to drop the suit.”
His client, he says, did not call the emergency services line prior to the beating.
“He never called 911 that night,” Owdom said. “He called the Porterville non-emergency line. I think these are completely improper charges. He’s (Huerta) not going to be intimidated by these kinds of hi-jinks.”
The attorney says both cases will move forward.
“I want to discover what the thought process is there to give the county and the Sheriff’s Department help to keep them from producing records,” Owdom said. “Why did they refile this thing weeks after the (civil rights) lawsuit was filed. How did that happen?”
In a move Owdom calls “bizarre,” the attorney representing the county in the civil rights case referred to Owdom’s request for documents from the District Attorney’s office during a hearing before a federal judge.
Myers’ knowledge of the discovery request, according to Owdom, indicates the DA’s office and the County Counsel’s office have been coordinating their efforts regarding his client.
During the hearing, Owdom says that county’s attorney accused Owdom’s office of failing to turn over documents still being held by the DA’s office.
Those documents have not been released as of August 2, Owdom says, though he delivered the demand by hand to the DA on May 23.
Owdom accused the county’s attorney of twice violating Federal Rule of Procedure 11 prohibiting the filing of unsupported or frivolous arguments, or filing them for an improper purpose. The DA’s office and the Office of the County Counsel are on notice Owdom intends to look more deeply at their interactions and their legality.
“I made a demand last week that the District Attorney and the County Counsel preserve all communications between their offices in this case,” Owdom said. “I think all of this is the proper subject of discovery.”
The county’s behavior regarding his client has been unethical, Owdom says.
“They initiated this (criminal charges against Huerta), I am almost certain, in an attempt by the county and the District Attorney to, first of all, coerce Ramiro into dropping his civil rights lawsuit, and, second, to stymie the discovery in federal court,” he said. “Either is highly improper.”
Long Delays and Miscommunications
David Alavezos, spokesman for the District Attorney’s office, says the half-year gap between the incident and his office’s decision to charge Huerta with a crime are the result of a slow pace within the DA’s office, personnel changes and poor communication.
“There was a delay on some things,” Alavezos said. “Apparently there may have been some miscommunications. The attorney who initially filed has since gone to a different office.”
The criminal matter is also moving slowly through the Superior Court system. A trial confirmation hearing is set for November 29. That follows a pretrial meeting on November 1. A jury trial is set for December 4.
All of the hearings on the Huerta case are scheduled for Department 19 in at the Porterville Courthouse. While Alavezos cannot discuss particulars in the case, he invites the public to attend to find out what evidence the county has against Huerta.
“You may not have all the information,” he said.
The charges Huerta now face stem from an incident that took place at the rural Strathmore home he shares with his elderly parents.
On the night of April 26, 2017, Huerta called the Porterville Police Department’s non-emergency line to report suspicious circumstances near his home. When told the PPD did not have jurisdiction in the area, Huerta argued with the dispatcher, his attorney says, asking to speak to a supervisor.
“He kind of failed the attitude test,” Owdom said at the time.
Huerta did not contact the TCSO or call 911 that night, yet hours later, after he and his parents had gone to bed, several deputies appeared on his doorstep, according to the federal lawsuit.
Huerta refused to grant the officers access to his home, and the deputies then attempted to draw Huerta, who is gay, out of his home by taunting him, the suit alleges.
After failing to lure Huerta outside with homophobic slurs, the TCSO officers then feigned their departure, attacking Huerta when he was closing a gate the deputies had left open, Owdom stated in the suit.
Deputies beat Huerta in his front yard before dragging him back into his home, where the assault continued in his living room, according to the suit.
The interaction with the deputies left Huerta with a severely broken nose and two fractures of his eye orbital bone that have resulted in permanent vision loss.
What is apparently not in dispute is that deputies took Huerta to Sierra View Hospital in Porterville. Huerta did not receive treatment for his injuries before being locked overnight in a county holding facility.
Released the next morning, Huerta was not allowed to call for a ride. He eventually returned home on foot from Porterville, a walk of more than 10 miles.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux issued the following statement:
“There are two sides to every story. You have heard one side. Our side, which involves a personnel matter, will be heard during litigation.
“Our office is aware of the allegation which is pending litigation. This complaint and every complaint received by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office is meticulously reviewed. At this time, there is no evidence to support the allegation.
“Due to the pending litigation, we are unable to elaborate on our position or the circumstances of the incident.”
DA Causing Delays
The move by the District Attorney to charge Huerta criminally is delaying when Boudreaux will be able to elaborate on his deputies’ actions.
“As a result of that filing, a part of the critical discovery in the case has been postponed,” Owdom said. “That’s the officers’ personnel records and files.”
Still, work on the case is moving forward quickly where it can.
“We’re in the thick of litigation right now,” said Owdom.
Huerta is facing a deposition in the civil case in September, and Owdom will be taking depositions from several county employees before moving onto the officers involved in the incidents of April 26, 2017.
“There hasn’t been any kind of explosive discovery we’ve locked in stone yet,” he said.
Owdom has taken on co-counsel in the case, adding attorney Doug Rochen to Huerta’s legal team. Rochen had previous success arguing a prominent civil rights case against the TCSO and one its deputies involving bribery and multiple incidents of sexual assault.
“He’s the guy who nailed the county on the (former Tulare County Sheriff’s deputy William) Nulick case, the deputy who was coercing sexual favors when he pulled people over,” Owdom said.
Nulick was given a five-year prison sentence in 2016 after pleading no contest to sexual assault under color of authority to avoid a possible life sentence during a jury trial. In the civil case that resulted from Nulick’s behavior, Tulare County was forced to pay $2.2 million to settle the matter.