COURT WATCH: Deputy Public Defender in Shoplifting Jury Trial Argues Accused Mistreated by Loss Prevention Officer Based on Race 

By Nico Ludwig-Stock and Madison Whittenmore

WOODLAND, CA – Deputy Public Defender Roberto Villa argued his client, a Black man charged with petty theft, was mistreated by a Loss Prevention Officer (LPO) after exiting a store when the LPO threatened the accused with pepper spray, and tackled him before handcuffing him in the parking lot.

DPD Villa later added the LPO may have mistreated the accused because of his race.

The jury heard opening arguments, witness testimony, and closing arguments in a shoplifting trial Tuesday in Yolo County Superior Court. The accused is charged with misdemeanor petty theft, for an alleged shoplifting incident that occurred at a Nugget grocery store on June 30, 2023.

DDA Nicholas Spatola began his opening statement with a quote from C.S. Lewis that noted, ‘Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.’

“However, in this case someone was watching,” said the prosecutor, stating at the time of the incident, there was a LPO watching surveillance who allegedly observed the accused place items in his cart and exit without paying for them.

According to DDA Spatola, the evidence from the witnesses and the surveillance footage will show the accused took these items without paying for them and is guilty of petty theft.

Deputy Public Defender Roberto Villa framed his argument around the accused’s intent in taking the items, noting the accused can be seen taking items and leaving without paying for them in the surveillance footage, so “the crux of this case comes down to intent.”

Next, DPD Villa asked the jury to pay attention to Nugget’s Loss Prevention Officer’s treatment of the accused. He wrapped up his opening statement by reminding the jury the prosecution has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The first witness was the LPO working at Nugget at the time of the incident, who said since he began working there in Nov., 2021, he has seen roughly 300 cases of external theft.

In “organized retail crime,” he said, “small, money-dense items” such as health and beauty products and liquor are more likely to be stolen. So if he notices people taking a lot of these items, and quickly, it could be a sign they are going to steal them.

DDA Spatola played five surveillance videos for the jury, throughout which the accused could be seen placing items in his cart, and eventually leaving the store without paying for them.

The LPO described his observation of the accused on surveillance. He said he observed him taking a “large amount of liquor,” including 12 bottles of tequila, and two cases of Budweiser beer. Regarding the tequila, he said it was suspicious that he put several of the same brand of tequila bottles in his cart.

The LPO described using one of Nugget’s Zoom cameras to zoom in on the accused, because he suspected he would steal. When the accused eventually exited the store, the LPO said he ran out to confront him, bringing at least three Nugget employees with him.

The LPO described seizing the grocery cart from the accused, at which point the accused grabbed a pack of beer from the cart and attempted to leave in his car. At this point, said the LPO, he physically detained the man, and placed him in handcuffs.

The proceedings were interrupted when the bailiff delivered a note to the judge, who said, “There’s a note here from Juror 11. (The Juror) saw his wife and daughter in the surveillance video. They had told him of the incident but he didn’t realize this was the same incident they described.” The juror’s daughter had reportedly witnessed the arrest and told him about the incident when it occurred back in June.

DDA Spatola argued the juror should be removed because it could affect his ability to be impartial in the trial. DPD Villa disagreed, citing the juror’s own statements that he would be able to set his family’s involvement aside and be impartial in the case. Judge Tom Dyer ultimately allowed the juror to remain on the jury.

The jury returned to hear DPD Villa cross-examine the witness. DPD Villa began by going through the LPO’s qualifications again, this time reiterating that he has never received law enforcement training. He then asked the LPO to describe his phone call to the police.

The LPO admitted he called 911 when he saw the accused selecting the bottles of tequila. He told the 911 operator, “He’s got a lot of liquor and other products. He’s not going to pay. Can we get another officer here quickly?”

DPD Villa then led the LPO through the events that occurred outside in the parking lot once the accused left the store. The LPO stated he did not remember the accused running from him. He also stated that the accused did not try to fight him. He only “grabbed a 12 pack and went towards his vehicle.”

Next DPD Villa asked questions about the LPO’s treatment of the accused during his detainment. “You tackled (the accused) that day, correct?” he asked. “I believe so,” said the LPO. DPD Villa asked if the arrest occurred while the accused was lying face down, but the LPO said the accused was seated at the time.

“Are you aware that a passerby at six o’clock called the police on you and the two Nugget employees as this was happening?” asked DPD Villa, to which the LPO said, “I wasn’t, but I’m not surprised. People call the police all the time.”

The LPO then admitted that he pointed his can of pepper spray at the accused’s face and threatened to use it. When asked if there was any surveillance in the parking lot where the detainment took place, the LPO stated, “Unfortunately not.”

The LPO revealed that, following his detainment, the accused had asked him to call paramedics for him, which the LPO did.

The next witness called to the stand was police Officer Jose Aguilera, who patrols the city of Davis.

Officer Aguilera explained that on June 30, 2023, he had responded to the Nugget Market in Davis after the LPO had detained the accused for allegedly shoplifting.

Officer Aguilera noted that when he arrived at the scene, he walked to the rear of the business and observed the LPO standing next to the accused who was already in the LPO’s handcuffs.

According to Officer Aguilera, the accused seemed “upset” and was attempting to explain what had happened and how the LPO had mistreated him.

“He (the accused) was asking if he had to sign the loss prevention paperwork and he said it in an angry way,” Officer Aguilera said, again noting how the accused said he was mistreated by the LPO multiple times.

When further questioned by DPD Villa about any mistreatment the accused had suffered from the LPO, Officer Aguilera explained that while sitting on the curb of the parking lot, the accused had gotten “tackled down” by seven employees from the Nugget Market which resulted in the accused obtaining an arm injury.

Officer Aguilera noted the accused had explained this after being read his Miranda Rights, and had been compliant and respectful during the entire questioning.

During a brief closing argument, DDA Spatola emphasized the accused’s alleged intent to permanently deprive Nugget Market of the merchandise without consent.

“Go back, take your time, look through them,” the DDA said to the jurors, referencing the elements that show the accused’s guilt, according to the prosecution.

Following DDA Spatola’s closing statement, DPD Villa presented his concluding arguments that focused on the accused’s background and race.

“(The accused) has been through a lot,” DPD Villa asserted, also adding “we cannot disregard how he was treated on June 30, 2023.”

Recapping the chain of events once more, DPD Villa explained how the accused walked into Nugget Market with his two children and could be seen on the surveillance footage adding various items such as laundry detergent, salad, and multiple bottles of tequila to his shopping cart.

Referencing the LPO’s testimony regarding multiple bottles of tequila that made the accused look “suspicious,” DPD Villa pointed out that the jury should not ignore that the race of the accused clearly played a part in the case.

“Do you think if I would have gone in there in my suit and tie and placed 12 bottles of tequila in my cart, that would have been interpreted the same way?” DPD Villa asked the jurors, concluding his closing argument.

The jury went into deliberation at the end of the day to render a verdict.

About The Author

Madison Whittemore is a rising junior at the University of California, Davis where she studies political science and psychology. After completing her undergraduate studies, Madison wants to go to law school and study criminal law while working to improve efforts for prison reform and representation for lower income citizens.

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