Retired Oxnard firefighter who aided shooting victim sues Santa Paula over police treatment
Joseph Garces was driving down A Street in Santa Paula on the afternoon of Oct. 9, 2020, when he saw a woman standing on the sidewalk, talking on the phone, obviously distraught. He pulled over and saw why: a man lying face-up in a parking lot, in a pool of liquid.
At first Garces thought the liquid was beer and the man was passed out, he would later tell police. He pulled his Jeep over next to the man, and that's when he realized the woman was calling 911, and the liquid was blood.
Garces is a retired firefighter, and his training took over. The man in the parking lot appeared to have been shot in the face. He wasn't breathing and Garces didn't detect a pulse.
The man had a gun and a knife in his waistband. Garces took the gun, unloaded it and put it on the floorboard of his Jeep. He took the knife and used it to cut the man’s shirt open, and he began to administer CPR.
Around then, Santa Paula police officers started to arrive. One of them took over CPR while another interviewed Garces.
Another officer, Detective Chris Rivera, arrived a few minutes later and immediately told other officers to "get this guy out of here," referring to Garces, according to police body camera footage from the incident. When Garces replied with, "What the f---? ... I'm helping, step the f--- off," Rivera yelled, “Get the f--- out of my crime scene.”
An expletive-filled shouting match between the two men ensued, and within a few minutes Rivera had pinned Garces to a tree with his arm held behind his back, handcuffed him and detained him in the back of a police car.
Garces is now suing the city of Santa Paula in federal court, alleging civil rights violations, unreasonable use of force, battery and negligence. The suit was filed in August 2021, and last week a federal judge rejected the city's attempt to have the suit thrown out, which means it will proceed toward a trial or settlement.
In his March 24 order, U.S. District Judge Fernando Anelle-Rocha ruled against the city's motion to dismiss the case in all respects but one: The judge agreed with the city that Rivera has "qualified immunity," which means he can't be held personally liable. The suit will proceed against the city, but not against Rivera.
Garces left the scene that night in an ambulance, bound for Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. In court papers and depositions, he said he suffered a dislocated shoulder and torn labrum that had to be surgically repaired. Garces, who is now 54, also claims to have suffered “severe emotional distress,” as the incident triggered a post-traumatic stress response that first arose in his career with the Oxnard Fire Department.
The shooting victim, Samir Selgado of Santa Paula, survived. Richard Steven Valencia of Santa Paula was arrested a few days later and pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and other charges. Valencia is being held in Ventura County Jail without bail and his next court appearance is scheduled for April 11.
Attorneys for Garces and for the city of Santa Paula both declined to comment on the case. Both sides have retained former law enforcement officers who are now consultants in police procedure as expert witnesses. The city’s expert, former Pasadena police chief Phillip Sanchez, has testified that Rivera did nothing wrong. Garces’ expert, retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Roger A. Clark, said in his report that the force used against Garces was “excessive, unnecessary and unlawful.”
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Not an open-and-shut case
The Star showed the body camera footage and deposition transcripts to two independent experts in police procedure and the use of force: a UCLA law professor and a professor of criminal justice at San Francisco State University. Both said Garces has a case to make against the city, though it's impossible to say whether he will win his lawsuit.
“This is not as open-and-shut as either party makes it sound,” said Jeffrey Snipes, the SFSU professor. He is also a consultant to law enforcement agencies and has held positions at the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union.
There are factors working both for and against Garces in court, Snipes said. In his favor: He was unarmed and wasn’t suspected of any crime; in fact, he was acting as a good Samaritan and may well have saved Selgado’s life. He also did not initiate a physical confrontation with Rivera, and before Rivera arrived, he was calmly answering the other officers' questions.
On the other hand, body camera footage shows Garces engaging in a heated confrontation with Rivera, swearing at him, insulting him and advancing to yell at him from closer range.
"It turned into a personal beef real quick," Snipes said.
Whether Garces' conduct amounted to resisting or obstructing the officer will be a key point in the trial, should the case advance to one, both experts told the Star.
“I kind of feel for the guy,” Snipes said, referring to Garces. “He stops, he renders aid, everything is cool calm and collected, until this officer shows up. … He probably saves this guy's life. Every single step he takes is appropriate: He takes the gun, he takes the bullets out, he removes the knife, and then Rivera gets on the scene and upends the whole thing.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Garces’ legal rights were violated. Snipes said he "can't really a see a ton of evidence in his favor" on most of the claims, including excessive force.
"That only works if the shoulder and wrist hold was not reasonable," Snipes said. "It looked like a very standard detention to me. It didn't look particularly forceful."
The allegation of denial of medical care will also be hard to prove, Snipes said, since officers did call an ambulance for Garces when he asked for one.
Snipes said Garces has a stronger case on his negligence claim, which could revolve around whether Rivera should have detained him at all. The city has argued in legal filings that Garces was obstructing Rivera in his duties, but Snipes said it will need to show that Garces did more to obstruct the officer than yelling and cursing at him.
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Joanna Schwartz, the UCLA law professor who also reviewed the body camera footage at the Star's request, was more optimistic about Garces' chances in federal court.
"From a legal perspective, it's clear to me that the plaintiff has a claim," she said in an email interview.
Whether a police officer's use of force violates a person's constitutional rights "is determined by assessing the totality of the circumstances from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene," Schwartz said. Factors a court considers include the severity of any crime the person might be suspected of; whether they pose an immediate threat to officers or bystanders; and whether they are resisting or trying to evade arrest.
Schwartz said her analysis of the body camera footage indicates that Garces was not suspected of any crime, didn't resist or evade arrest, and wasn't posing a threat to the officers — "although he was clearly exercising his free speech rights," she said.
"The city and the officer may argue that he was being disruptive, which was preventing them from doing their jobs, and that they needed to take action for that reason," Schwartz said. "This is, generally speaking, the question that I expect will be disputed and litigated through discovery and trial."
The judge has ordered Garces and the city to consult a private mediator in hopes of settling the matter out of court. If it is not settled, the judge has scheduled pre-trial hearings over the admissibility of certain evidence for July, with a jury trial scheduled to start Aug. 8.
Attorneys for both Garces and the city declined to comment on whether the case is likely to be settled before it goes to trial, but Schwartz said lawsuits like this one often are.
“It's very hard to predict what a jury will do, which is why most of these cases settle,” she said.
Tony Biasotti is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at email@example.com. This story was made possible by a grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation's Fund to Support Local Journalism.
This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Santa Paula sued for detaining man who aided shooting victim