A civil rights case against the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office stemming from the 2017 beating of an openly gay Strathmore man can now proceed in federal court following a criminal trial of the beating victim instigated by the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office.
DA Filed Charges One Year After Incident
The criminal case against Strathmore resident Ramiro Huerta was filed more than a year after he was beaten severely by five members of the TCSO, and only after the civil suit against the department was filed in November of 2017. The charges filed by the TCDA – including making unlawful 911 calls, assaulting law officers and resisting arrest – were made in August 2018.
“They filed these BS charges after the (civil rights) lawsuit was filed,” said Matthew Owdom, a Visalia attorney representing Huerta, said at the time the charges were filed. “They initiated a brand-new prosecution six months after the incident in an effort to get Mr. Huerta to drop the suit.”
The beating took place on April 26, 2017.
While the DA’s office has denied the criminal charges were retaliatory, the apparently unfounded accusations resulted in a 15-day jury trial that ended late last month, almost exactly six years after the incident. Huerta was found innocent except for making annoying phone calls, a misdemeanor crime.
On the night of April 26, 2017, Huerta, then 41, called the Porterville Police Department to report a suspicious circumstance outside the rural home he shares with his 78-year-old mother and 87-year-old father. He was told Porterville officers did not have jurisdiction in the area, leading Huerta to argue with the dispatcher and ask to speak with the supervising sergeant during a series of calls.
While Huerta was never in contact with the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, deputies arrived at his residence about an hour after his contact with the PPD.
According to the federal civil rights lawsuit against the TCSO, deputies attempted to get Huerta to leave his home by taunting him, but he refused. The deputies – whose body cameras were turned off during the attack on Huerta – then hid outside the property, assaulting Huerta when he left his home to close a gate the deputies left open.
Huerta was able to escape the deputies temporarily, but they followed him into his home, where the beating continued while his elderly mother looked on. The officers used batons and other weapons during the attack, also kicking Huerta repeatedly in the head.
The deputies then placed Huerta in a squad car, where he was pepper sprayed while handcuffed and beaten unconscious, according to the lawsuit.
Huerta later told the Fresno Bee he believes the attack was a hate crime committed because he is openly homosexual.
Huerta suffered three broken facial bones, vision loss and brain damage, the lawsuit contends. The county disputes the extent of Huerta’s injuries.
According to the lawsuit, before booking Huerta at the county jail in Porterville, Huerta was transported for evaluation to Sierra View Hospital. Deputies allowed only minor treatment of Huerta’s extensive injuries.
Huerta was held overnight at the South Valley Detention Center then released barefoot in the tanktop and shorts he was wearing at the time of his arrest. Because he was not allowed to use a telephone, Huerta walked the approximately 13 miles back to his Strathmore home.
His parents later transported him to the hospital after he began bleeding from his facial wounds.
The criminal charges filed against Huerta and left pending for five years effectively disrupted the civil case against the TCSO and its deputies. The civil suit was placed on hold while the criminal case made remarkably slow progress through the courts.
Besides the TCSO, the defendants include Lt. Ron Smith, who was in charge the night of the beating; Deputy Salvador Ceja, who no longer works for the TCSO and was accused of other acts of improper behavior on the job; and former deputy Michael Coldren, who has also left law enforcement. Also named as defendants are correctional officer James Dillon IV and Deputy Hector Hernandez. Deputy Laura Torres-Salcido is also a defendant, accused of making slurs against Huerta during his incarceration because of his homosexuality.
At the time the charges were filed, Owdom was eager to defend his client.
“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?”
Owdom remains an attorney of record in the case, and Huerta has hired experienced civil rights Los Angeles-based attorneys. They include Boris Treyzon, Brianna Yselle Franco and Douglas Rochen. A status conference on the case was held Wednesday, May 3. The case remains in the discovery phase, as lawyers for both sides examine evidence that could be used in the case.