By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
The case of Hugo V. Sarmiento isn't exactly ideal in the fight against Southern California police brutality. Sarmiento is alive and well after his law-enforcement encounters, and though more cynical about cops, he's full of intellectual stamina. He has earned a master's degree from UCLA, where he's in the process of earning a Ph.D. in urban planning.
Seven years ago last May, Sarmiento, then 24, involuntarily received a lesson in the power of abusive police. The Los Angeles County resident attended a 300-person protest in Garden Grove against Jim Gilchrist and his anti-immigrant Minuteman Project. He believes the cops overreacted with force against a handful of protesters and that he was singled out, harassed, mocked, falsely arrested, excessively detained and beaten for expressing political views contrary to ones held by officers.
The gathering had been vocal but peaceful until Hal Netkin, a Minuteman Project supporter, drove his van into the crowd, striking bystanders. Police treated Netkin as though he were a hero and didn't appreciate protesters' insistence the driver be arrested for assault. Eyewitnesses say cops began physically confronting the crowd, shoving people with their batons, putting their dogs in attack mode and charging others with horses.
Officers involved in the Sarmiento case have insisted, as you'd expect, they magnificently performed their duties that night without bias after watching this defendant throw full soda cans at cops mounted on horses, police vehicles and police dogs before attempting to flee. One undercover Garden Grove cop who'd infiltrated (and helped to agitate) the crowd recorded that he observed Sarmiento "yelling at police" (see Gustavo Arellano's "Razin' la Raza," Jan. 20, 2006). They surrounded Sarmiento at gunpoint, tackled him and locked him up.
Sarmiento adamantly denied throwing any cans, but more than seven hours later, police transferred him to the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana, where, he says, he was once again singled out, falsely accused of being highly intoxicated—an absurd lie unless maybe Garden Grove cops supplied him a cold 12-pack of Bud while he was in their custody—pulled away from other inmates and shoved into a room where, video shows, deputies tortured him.
While in custody, deputies also aggressively questioned him about his political beliefs (hello, Beijing!) and called him a hypocrite for living in the United States while criticizing a pro-American group such as the Minuteman Project, according to Sarmiento. He says an officer told him, "This is what happens [to people like you]."
Another one mocked him, saying, "This Mexican speaks English!"
Cops then accused Sarmiento of committing five crimes based on the alleged soda tossing. If convicted, he'd potentially go to prison. But police had a huge problem: Eyewitnesses backed Sarmiento's version of events, and detectives couldn't produce a single can from the protest scene that had his DNA or fingerprints, according to court records.
The police case was exceptionally questionable. A prosecutor in the Orange County district attorney's office agreed to drop four counts—including felonies—if Sarmiento pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor: failure to obey a police order. He did so. (Charges were dropped altogether for several arrested protesters; in the case of Kurt Takeshi Isobe, who was also beaten and maimed by cops, a jury in a county that is notoriously pro-cop couldn't find him guilty of any of his five charges.)
In June 2006, Sarmiento filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging that police had discriminated against him because of his political beliefs and because he is Latino.
"[Orange County law-enforcement officials] allow and/or encourage employees to exercise their powers discriminatorily, as for example against persons who are perceived to support immigrants' rights and in favor of those, such as the Minuteman Project, who are perceived to be anti-immigrant," the lawsuit stated. "The plaintiff is informed and believes that the Orange County jailers and [other cops] engaged in wrongful acts because of information communicated to them by the Garden Grove police for the purpose of causing the jailers to single [Sarmiento] out for abusive treatment."
According to the lawsuit, a group of deputies working under the direction of then-sheriff, now-convicted felon Mike Carona concocted the intoxication excuse to separate Sarmiento from other prisoners, throw him against a concrete jail wall, toss him on the floor, twist his legs to the back of his head, unnecessarily handcuff him with excessive tightness, kick his face, kneel on his head, leave him in a cold cell without adequate clothes and threaten additional physical assaults. (To see the details of a prosecutor-driven report outlining brazen unprofessionalism and cheating by jail deputies in this county, read my April 10, 2008, column, "DA's Report Is a Stunning Indictment of the Mike Carona-Run Jails—Sort Of.")
After a 2009 jury at Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse declined to hold the cops accountable for misconduct; adding insult to injury, lawyers for police handed Sarmiento a bill for nearly $19,000 to help reimburse them for court costs. The plaintiff's attorneys pointed out their client couldn't afford to pay the bill because he was a student with a negative net worth from a series of college loans. U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter, a Bill Clinton appointee to the federal bench, nevertheless sanctioned the tab.
But late last month the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case and handed Sarmiento his first victory after seven years of defeats. A three-judge panel concluded that his trial hadn't been fair. They specifically rejected Carter's decision to limit the jury's decision about wrongdoing to just two named deputies and not others involved in the beatings.
"Sarmiento does not identify the particular deputies who used excessive force against him, in part because his face was pressed into the wall or floor during the deputies' alleged use of excessive force," the appellate judges wrote. "While Sarmiento additionally named deputies [Matthew] LeFlore and [David] Hernandez as individual defendants, he never alleged that it was only LeFlore and Hernandez who had used excessive force. Indeed, the videotape of the beating shows that several officers, not just LeFlore and Hernandez, were involved in the beating, and Sarmiento testified that he was unable to identify which of the officers kicked him in the face."
The judges said Carter erred by only allowing jurors to determine if LeFlore and Hernandez were guilty of the abuse, a mistake that invalidates the verdicts. They also overturned the decision to charge Sarmiento with the police lawyers' bill and ordered a new trial to be run consistent with their rulings.
When I contacted Sarmiento in Los Angeles, he was unaware of the ruling. There was no expression of joy or satisfaction. He said his experiences have left him with no faith in government institutions. Though he sought media coverage at the outset of his lawsuit, he nowadays refuses to describe how deputies tortured him and answers most questions guardedly.
Will he pursue a new trial?
"I don't know," said Sarmiento, who has been active in protesting education spending cuts at UCLA. "If I do, I'd do it only to win."
This column appeared in print as "'This Mexican Speaks English!' Cops targeted Hugo Sarmiento for torture after a 2005 anti-immigration rally, and he's still waiting for justice."