A civil rights lawsuit alleging that a group of Tulare County Sheriff Office deputies carried out an organized assault on an unarmed man — supposedly lying in wait for the victim then beating him nearly to death and partially blinding him during an attack carried out in the presence of his elderly mother — will proceed to a jury trial in federal court.
The suit against the TCSO also names the county as a defendant, along with current and former TCSO deputies Ronald Smith, Michael Coldren, James Dillon, Laura Torres-Salcido, Hector Hernandez and Salvador Ceja, as well as additional “unknown Tulare County Sheriff’s deputies.”
Misdemeanor criminal charge caused long delay
The case — which was filed initially on behalf of alleged victim Ramiro Huerta in late 2017 — has been pending since the Tulare County District Attorney filed criminal charges against Huerta half a year following his possibly violent run-in with deputies at his Strathmore-area home.
In the latest development, which came in the form of a ruling in the federal case published on April 12, denied the county’s motion to dismiss the case.
“Now that that’s out of the way, we’re set to go,” said Visalia attorney Matthew Owdom, who is Huerta’s local legal counsel.
Owdom filed the initial case in 2017. Additional attorneys of record have since been added.
“Boris Treyzon and Doug Rochen are his Los Angeles-based attorneys. They’re the ones who actually tried the criminal trial,” Owdom said. “It was a hung jury on (the resisting arrest charge). It’s a vindication of his story that they came on his property and attacked him.”
The validation of Huerta’s allegations was a long time coming due to the COVID-19 pandemic protocols.
“It’s incredibly hard given COVID to get a misdemeanor trial,” Owdom said.
DA eventually dropped resisting charge
Owdom said the county’s defense attorneys likely hoped a conviction for impeding an officer would provide ammunition against Huerta in federal court, negatively reflecting on the veracity of Huerta’s allegations of severe violations of his civil rights that have left him permanently scarred.
“If we had lost the criminal trial on resisting arrest there could have been some kind of precluding effect,” he said, adding it would not have doomed the case entirely if Huerta had been found guilty.
At the time the criminal charges were filed, Owdom characterized them as “BS,” and said they amounted to an attempt by the DA’s office to get Huerta to end his suit against its sister agency, the TCSO, as well as the county itself.
In the end, that tactic failed entirely.
“The only thing he was convicted on was making annoying phone calls,” Owdom said. “They couldn’t convict (on charges of resisting arrest), so the DA dismissed those charges. That happened in December (of 2021).”
The beating of Ramiro Huerta
The fact a severe beating occurred — leading to the failed charges against Huerta — is not in dispute.
On the night of April 26, 2017, Huerta called the Porterville Police Department’s non-emergency telephone line to report suspicious circumstances near the rural Strathmore home he shared with his elderly parents. When told the PPD had no jurisdiction, Huerta demanded to speak to a sergeant during a series of calls, resulting in his eventual misdemeanor conviction in December.
Those calls also allegedly resulted in TCSO deputies waiting until Huerta left the safety of his gated home to carry out an unprovoked assault against him.
Though Huerta never contacted the TCSO, the deputies who would allegedly attack him arrived at his home after the family had gone to bed. According to the suit, Huerta told the deputies he no longer needed help and asked them to leave. Later, when Huerta exited his home to close the main gate of the property, deputies allegedly attacked him from hiding, continuously beating him as they carried him inside his home, where his then 71-year-old mother witnessed the assault.
Batons and similar weapons were used on Huerta, who was also kicked in the head as he lay on his living room floor.
Deputies then allegedly dragged the handcuffed Huerta back into his front yard, where he was pepper sprayed. Additional blows were supposedly delivered, according to Huerta’s suit, while he was held in the back of a TCSO vehicle, rendering him unconscious.
Huerta suffered a broken nose and fractured eye orbital, severe concussions, black eyes and bruising over his entire body, and a severely injured shoulder. He was also partially blinded in one eye during the assault.
Medical treatment denied; hate crime alleged
Further, while Huerta was transported to Sierra District Hospital for evaluation, deputies did not allow medical personnel there to render aid despite his requesting it. Instead, Huerta was transported to the county’s South Valley Detention Center in Porterville, where he was held overnight.
He was released the following morning, but Huerta was allegedly not allowed to call for a ride and was forced to walk 10 miles to his home. His parents then returned him to Sierra View for treatment.
According to the federal lawsuit, the TCSO officers’ assault against Huerta constitutes a hate crime, as the deputies who beat him used homophobic slurs and vulgarities against him. Huerta is openly gay.
“It’s not hard to tell he’s gay when you talk to him,” Owdom said of his client in 2017. “That’s what happened to Ramiro. It’s real. It happened.”
Deputies later returned to the Huerta home to retrieve keys and sunglasses lost while fighting with him.
County’s request for dismissal denied
In the April 12 opinion issued in Huerta v Tulare County, et al, the judge mildly rebuked Huerta’s defense attorneys in the criminal case against him.
The court found lawyers Treyzon and Rochen, who defended Huerta successfully against the criminal charges filed against him months after the alleged crimes he committed occurred, acted inappropriately when they used or attempted to use evidence discovered in Huerta’s civil rights case against the TCSO to defend him against the charges he faced as a result of his interaction with the deputies.
An excerpt from the federal order makes it clear why attorneys for the TCSO did not want evidence from the civil rights case used to defend Huerta in his criminal case. A specific instance where Treyzon and Rochen violated the court’s protective order also showed one of the deputies accused of criminally assaulting Huerta later resigned in connection with a second assault of a restrained prisoner, this one a child.
“First, the Court considers whether Plaintiff’s counsel violated this Court’s order by referencing the Internal Affairs investigation and employment status of Defendant Ceja during a motion in limine in the criminal case. During that motion, Huerta’s defense counsel (Plaintiff’s counsel in this case) argued that, ‘Officer Ceja [defendant in the civil case] in connection with a juvenile that he had handcuffed and then cracked across the face. And while they were investigated under IA, he resigned his position.’”
Court says county’s request is unreasonable
The county’s attorneys also asked the court to sanction Huerta’s legal counsel for violating the order on three occasions. The court declined to award the full amount requested by the county, saying the actions were not far enough out of line, and instead ordered the county’s legal fees be reimbursed, but to a far lesser extent than was requested.
The judge also found attorneys for the county had been overzealous in their attempts to bring Huerta’s legal representatives to bay.
“However, the Court does not find the 118.8 hours expended in bringing the contempt motion entirely reasonable,” the April 12 order said. “Defense counsel has filed unnecessarily oversized briefs with many hundreds of pages of exhibits.”
The county’s practice of going too far apparently continued even as it sought to sanction Huerta’s attorneys and end his case against their clients, according to the order.
“The briefing on the request for sanctions is greater in scope and length than what was needed to address the issue,” the judge presiding in the case wrote.
With side issues settled, federal trial can begin
While Huerta’s attorneys awaited the April 12 court orders, preparation for the eventual jury trial that seemed more likely to come to pass continued.
“There has just been a lot of small stuff happening,” Owdom said.
The criminal charges against Huerta are now a settled matter, and so the uncovering of evidence from TCSO personnel files that had been temporarily blocked to prevent cross contamination can resume.
“The federal action is gearing down on the second discovery phase before trial, the expert discovery, and we’ll be getting it set to actually empanel a federal jury in Fresno,” Owdom said.
The date of that trial, which will take place in Fresno in United States District Court, Eastern District of California, has yet to be placed on the court’s calendar.
Second civil rights case pending against TCSO
A trial date has been set in a second civil rights case against the county, the TCSO and its deputies.
In the second case, deputies of the TCSO are alleged to have used excessive force against Farmersville residents Brian Perez and Alba Dominguez, leaving the pair handcuffed, pointing weapons at them and subjecting them to unnecessarily harsh treatment while searching their home.
The raid, which was a search for large amounts of narcotics for sale, took place in the early hours of December 16, 2019, found no drugs at the couple’s home.
Attorneys in that case say the TCSO failed to check with the Farmersville Police Department, which suspected the house next door to the one the TCSO raided was the actual sight of drug trafficking.
The trial in that matter, which accuses the defendants of false imprisonment, as well as excessive force, will begin the jury selection process on July 18.