By Audrey Sawyer, Karime Montano Ayon
MODESTO, CA – Two law enforcement officers testified this past week here in Stanislaus County Superior Court in an ongoing jury trial for a man accused of trespassing (residing/camping in a tent in a particular area), although the defense charged they targeted the unhoused community using excessive force.
While both deputies Mitch Pinheiro and Drew Stahl claimed the accused was seemingly aggressive by refusing to leave the area and they were worried that the accused’s dog would attack or bite them, Deputy Public Defender Ryan Bowler noted the overuse of force, and said officers were intentionally looking for homeless individuals.
Deputy Pinheiro told the court that the accused did have a knife attached to his pants, but that the accused had never flashed the knife or made any movements in order to poke or harm him with it.
Pinheiro added he had told the accused to leave the area after receiving a call alleging of a trespass and the general location, but that the accused refused to leave.
The accused, who had made way to his vehicle, was in the driver’s seat with his dog. A clip was shown of the deputy informing the accused to “get his dog back” and that he will pepper spray the dog.
Deputy Stahl pepper sprays the dog first, as shown by the video footage. After a few moments of exiting the frame, the deputy moves back in and pepper sprays the dog once more. The attention then goes back to the accused.
Deputy District Attorney Angela Russell asked Pinheiro: “Aside from the view of the body camera, and prior to Stahl pepper spraying the dog, what was the dog doing while you were approaching the defendant in the vehicle?”
Deputy Pinheiro said the dog had been barking, and that the dog had then started snapping and was trying to bite, but that the deputy was more focused on the accused at that point.
The deputy added, “I believe the moment I exited the car, to the moment where I was forced to step in at the physical altercation taking place in the car.”
Deputy Pinheiro noted he had originally requested for the accused to leave the area, and did not move in closely towards the accused, was not pressing the situation and kept a distance.
DDA Russell cited a previously mentioned point from DPD Bowler about the usage of force, using an example of whether or not this situation would be concerning an “imminent threat” to the deputy: “Would you consider the dog a threat?”
Deputy Pinheiro agreed he felt threatened by the dog, claiming that in the first few initial minutes of the contact the accused told the dog could come “get him” if he wanted.
Deputy Pinheiro added when he told the accused that he could not leave, the accused said that he can “leave whenever he wants, unless you want to get bit by the dogs.”
When DDA Russell asked Pinheiro if he had seen any immediate weapons, or a gun, they answered no. “I took the dog as a weapon…that was what I considered an immediate threat.”
Deputy Pinheiro said he did not tell the accused that he was under arrest at that time, because he wanted to wait for his partners to arrive at the scene. He had told the other deputies this was a 1015, another way of saying that the accused will be arrested/taken into custody.
DPD Bowler interrupted to ask about de-escalation techniques, and asked the deputy if he recalled that the first thing he actually did when arriving at the scene was to pull out a weapon “ready and low” (citing words from a previous testimony given by the officer).
But, the deputy denied the allegation.
DPD Bowler asked: “How does looking around for homeless people deescalate the situation?”
Deputy testimony eventually established the gun was out of the deputy’s holster around 30 seconds to a minute “at most.”
DPD Bowler cited previous testimony where it was alleged that the accused was holding something in his hand at this time, but the deputy claimed he could not recall if that was true or not.
The next witness, Deputy Stahl, briefly testified that he was talking to the accused from the car, and the accused had seemed “upset and angry.” He described the accused as “aggressive.”
He told the court the accused had stated the officers “had their guns out at him, so if they have their guns out, he will have his dog out.” Deputy Stahl denied ever drawing a gun out while the accused was around, and that they did not have their guns out.
Deputy Stahl alleged he asked multiple times for the dog to be in the vehicle, citing it as a safety concern for him, to which the accused allegedly stated if the deputies have their guns, he is going to have his dog. The dog eventually was taken into the vehicle by the accused after several minutes.