Martinez v. City of Oxnard

Copyright 2007 Ventura County Star

All Rights Reserved

Ventura County Star (California)


April 20, 2007 Friday



BYLINE: By Stephanie Hoops


The federal case of Martinez v. City of Oxnard is in the hands of a jury.


It took nearly a decade for it to get tried, and the city faces significant liability should the jury find in favor of Oliverio Martinez.


In 1998, Martinez was a strawberry picker who lost his eyesight and was partially paralyzed after Oxnard Police Officer Maria Pa shot him several times.  Martinez, now 39, was never charged with a crime. He sued former Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez, police officers Pa, Andrew Salinas, Ben Chavez, and the city itself. 


Martinez was on bicycle


On the night of the shooting, Salinas and Pa were investigating suspected drug activity in a vacant lot in Oxnard when Martinez came upon them on a bicycle. The officers stopped him, found a 12-inch knife tucked into his pants, and an altercation ensued, during which Pa shot Martinez in the back, face and leg. 


Martinez's lawyers said the knife was a "work knife" that all field workers carried.


Defense lawyer Alan Wisotsky said it was a hunting knife and in his closing argument said it was what caused Martinez to be shot.  "This work knife, ladies and gentleman, is what led to the shooting of Mr. Martinez," he said.  The police officers gave two explanations of what happened they said that Martinez tried to take Salinas' gun, and that he did take the gun and had it in his hand when Pa shot him.


Martinez's lawyer, John Burton, said the story was fabricated because the police knew they weren't justified in using lethal force.  "That is why they had to change the story," he told the jury Thursday in his closing argument.


Stopping and searching Martinez as he headed home on a bicycle was not reasonable, Burton said.  The Fourth Amendment right to be free from unwarranted searches and seizures, Burton said, "is an extremely important law that gives us, regular people, freedom to go about our business. Without that, this is a police state."


Civil rights lawyer Samuel Paz addressed Chavez's role in the incident separately.


Chavez, who was then a parole supervisor and is now a sergeant, accompanied Martinez to the hospital after the shooting. In the ambulance, and continuing at the hospital, Chavez had a tape recorder and tried to get statements from Martinez, whom everyone expected to die as he screamed in pain and called out for his father.


Questioning called brutal


Paz called the questioning brutal, offensive, and shocking to the conscience.  "You eight folks have to decide if Mr. Chavez was there to help his (partners) or was there for a legitimate government interest," he said.  Paz said the questioning violated Martinez's due process rights.


"The Constitution was developed because our forefathers really wanted to get away from an oppressive society," he told the jury. "Our forefathers said, we don't want to have members of government forcing people to talk when they can't or don't want to."


In his closing for the defense, Wisotsky said Chavez was investigating a crime, and "Mr. Martinez was lucid, responsive and aware of his surroundings."  He called the lawyers' presentation of their case against Chavez "outrageous."


Martinez has also claimed the city and former Chief Lopez failed in their supervision, training and hiring practices. Lopez did not appear during the trial.  "Where's the chief?" he asked the jurors. "He didn't want to be responsible for the system he endorsed. He's a no-show."


Wisotsky told the jury that police officers have rights too, and are entitled to defend themselves. In his day, he said, Martinez was "buff."  "He was a packer," he said. "He was a stacker."  "Could things have been done better that night?" Wisotsky asked. "Probably. They always can. Does that mean that what was done was substandard?  Absolutely not."


Both sides praised the jury, composed of four men and four women for their dedication and punctuality during the nearly three weeks it took to show them all the evidence.