COURT WATCH: Jury Acquits Unhoused Man Accused of Multiple Crimes; Actions of Police Questioned 

By Audrey Sawyer

MODESTO, CA – A jury delivered a verdict of not guilty Tuesday here in Stanislaus County Superior Court in favor of an unhoused man accused of trespassing (a misdemeanor), resisting arrest and assault with a deadly weapon against police officers.

The accused, currently homeless, was found walking his dog by a canal, according to the charges. A phone call alleging trespassing led the officers to the accused, who had initially not wanted to leave the area after officers requested him to leave.

The prosecution portrayed him as being “a visible threat” to the officers as a result of the accused allegedly refusing to separate from his dog and, according to officers, making statements that if the cops were to have their guns, then he would have his dog, among other similar remarks. The dog was pepper sprayed by police.

Defense counsel objected to the lack of de-escalation techniques, arguing officers did not take measures to de-escalate the situation before “immediately pulling out guns.”

Excessive force was the main argument of Deputy Public Defender Ryan Bowler, noting the police pushing the accused’s head against a deputy’s car hood, an injury the accused received via his wrist as seen by provided images, various bruises and video footage of a knee going right to the accused’s back.

DPD Bowler emphasized there were other options, and that proper protocol was not followed by the officers. Further information detailing officer testimony and other case context can be found covered by the Vanguard here.

DPD Bowler opened his closing argument by telling the court officers did not abide by protocols.

Referencing video footage shown in a previous session, Bowler stated: “The accused was actually following orders. He even said in shown video footage that he was getting his stuff together. He is allowed to express his displeasure at the police, he can express how he is upset that someone pulled a gun on him/his animals within a few seconds.”

DPD Bowler questioned whether or not the accused was a threat to the police, claiming there was enough time for other deputies to be called in, and the accused did not have enough time to ultimately pack and gather all his belongings before the police acted.

Bowler asked the court the following: “What would have happened if the deputies had more patience in the case?”

In addition to questioning if a walk with his dog alongside a canal is enough to be considered a misdemeanor trespass, DPD Bowler’s called the conduct from the officers excessive and unreasonable.

According to DPD Bowler, there was a significant size difference between the accused and the officers. One officer is noted by DPD Bowler to outweigh the accused by more than 100 pounds.

DPD Bowler argued, “The officers did not even wait five minutes. There was no threat of the accused escaping, given that he was going nowhere in a busted up car both surrounded by deputies and with additional deputies staged near the street. They could have given him five minutes to properly exit and leave the area, like he was preparing to do.”

On the dogs being a perceived threat, DPD Bowler responded that the dog had been located across the car, across the canal bank, and next to another car, not running away.

He said, “The fear took over. There is no danger, this is fear about barking dogs. No one had followed the protocols, and this is what happens under stress? They were trained for these types of situations.”

DPD Bowler added the dog only had begun barking and started snapping after an officer had used pepper spray multiple times, arguing snapping/barking is a natural reaction after both being pepper sprayed and in a conflict with their owner over the leash.

DPD Bowler stated: “There was no reason to move this fast or this hard in the case. The pepper spraying was before the actual fight. Democracy is supposed to be by consent, and that badge is supposed to represent that. They did not show the badge, they showed a gun. They did not wait a period of five minutes. That is power. The amount of blood all over the deputy’s car after they pushed the accused against the hood, the wrist injury, the bruising in another exhibit.

“The video shows a knee go right into his back. There are bruises on his side, two inches, just the right size for a fist. There are scrapes at the elbow and most importantly, a closed fist at the side of the head. A deputy had testified that he was not the only one doing this, as if it is supposed to make it feel better. They had other options.”

The cops, according to DPD Bowler, had then later told the accused that he was unable to leave despite gathering his belongings and taking them to the vehicle:

“Is he supposed to leave or is he supposed to stay? How do you make that determination? The accused has the right to defend himself. If they followed protocol, the accused would have had more time, and with more time, perhaps there would not have been this confusion. He gathered his things eventually, got in the car, and was prepared to leave. Now they say that he has waited too long, tried their patience too much.”

In closing remarks, DPD Bowler told the jury that if officers are found to have not performed their duties successfully as officers, self-defense is a valid defense. He advises the jurors to “make sure that law enforcement follows the law, make sure that they follow protocol.”

He again re-emphasized the level of force from the beginning and reminded the jury the dog only bit at deputies after being pepper sprayed, and conduct from the deputies was excessive and the case ought to be considered a “not guilty” on every charge.

Deputy District Attorney Angela Russell noted the accused was using the dog as a “weapon.”

DDA Russell cites Deputy Drew Stahl’s testimony that the deputy viewed the dog as a threat, and that it was valid, given the previously mentioned comments from the accused about how if the “cops have their guns, I have my dog. I can make him attack you.” The video, DDA Russell claims, shows the accused giving commands to his dog, which the dog obeys.

She argued police were just simply performing their duties as officers, as they were in patrol cars and their uniforms, which is acknowledged by the accused.

“Deputy Mitch Pinheiro testified as part of his de-escalation technique that the defendant was irate from the beginning. He told the defendant to leave. Deputy Pinheiro said in testimony that his goal was for the defendant to leave.

“The defendant chose not to take it, instead being belligerent, swearing at the officers by saying that he would leave when he felt like leaving. Deputy Pinheiro told him that it did not work like that, he is constantly telling the accused to leave and that he is trespassing.”

DDA Russell stated Deputy Pinheiro said he gave the accused multiple chances to leave, and that Deputy Stahl had testified he had never “drew” his gun, insisting his gun was in the holster.

“The accused had gotten in the car when the deputies had told him to exit, the officers then went hands on. After the pepper spraying and the dog being out of the picture, the defendant still refused to exit the vehicle. He could have just exited the car. In a video of Deputy Pinheiro, he said it was unfortunate that he was going to have to use force,” added the DDA.

Prosecutor Russell said, “Nothing is shown to say deputies have to wait any specific period before using force. The use of force policy is about the reasonableness of what deputies perceive as being OK at the time. All three deputies had testified to what their perceptions were, not a barking dog, but the fact the defendant told officers numerous times that he could get the dog to attack.”

While the verdict came back not guilty on all charges and the jury was dismissed, the attorneys and the accused stayed behind to discuss another case from April 2023, an alleged DUI.

DDA Russell disagreed with DPD Bowler’s comments about how the accused ought to not be kept in custody because he is “not a threat to public safety,” explaining the case is a DUI with injury and “blood alcohol is high. We understand that he is transient, we are concerned about him returning. We ask bail to remain as set.”

Bail, currently $3,000 in that DUI case, is still not appropriate, argued DPD Bowler: “He could maybe afford $100. We do have familial support as well, and he has shown up to court consistently.”

Judge Shawn Bessey agreed to release the accused on his own recognizance with no bail, but seemed to offer concern, stating, “The jury acquitted your client. Still, actions on video cameras would indicate somewhat of an issue to society if he is not abiding by the commands of law enforcement. Keep in mind that you have to abide by the law enforcement commands in this case.

“I do not want to see anything like that happen again. Congratulations on the acquittal. I do think that if we had a cooler head amongst us that it could have been avoided. I certainly may see it in a different light from the jury, but as far as that is concerned, remember that we take the high road. I will release you on OR, as you do have a history of making your court appearances.”

DDA Russell added she would like to see the accused in AA classes while out on OR, given that it is a DUI.

However, Judge Bessey refused to order that, noting, “No prior DUIs. There is an allegation of injury. This case is from April 2023 and there are no medical records. I do not see it as an issue at this point in time. If there was some sort of history, I would agree with you.”

The accused will return in April for the DUI case.

About The Author

Audrey is a senior at UC San Diego majoring in Political Science (Comparative Politics emphasis). After graduation, Audrey plans on attending graduate school and is considering becoming a public defender.

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