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Retired Oxnard firefighter who helped shooting victim sues Santa Paula for police treatment

Retired Oxnard firefighter Joe Garces, left, is detained by Santa Paula Police Detective Chris Rivera on October 9, 2020, after stopping to perform CPR on a gunshot victim in Santa Paula . Garces eventually filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Rivera for civil rights violations.

Joseph Garces was driving down A Street in Santa Paula on the afternoon of October 9, 2020, when he saw a woman standing on the sidewalk, talking on the phone, visibly distraught. He stopped and saw why: a man lying on his stomach in a parking lot, in a pool of liquid.

At first Garces thought the liquid was beer and that the man had passed out, he would later tell the police. He parked his Jeep 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 has taken over. The man in the parking lot appears to have been shot in the head. He was not breathing and Garces did not detect a pulse.

The man had a gun and a knife in his belt. Garces took the gun, unloaded it, and put it on the floor of his Jeep. He took the knife and used it to open the man’s shirt, and he began to administer CPR.

Around this time, police officers from Santa Paula began to arrive. One of them took charge of the CPR while another interviewed Garces.

Another officer, Detective Chris Rivera, arrived minutes later and immediately told the other officers to ‘get this guy out of here’, referring to Garces, according to police body camera footage from the incident. When Garces replied, “What the f—? …I help, get away from the f—,” Rivera shouted, “Get the f— out of my crime scene. “

A swear-filled shouting match between the pair ensued, and within minutes Rivera had pinned Garces to a tree with his arm held behind his back, handcuffed him and restrained him in the back of his body. 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 lawsuit was filed in August 2021 and last week a federal judge dismissed the city’s attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed, meaning it will proceed to 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 but one respect: The judge agreed with the city that Rivera receives “qualified immunity”, meaning he cannot be detained. personally liable. The lawsuit will continue 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 documents and depositions, he said he suffered a dislocated shoulder and a torn labrum that needed to be surgically repaired. Garces, who is now 54, also claims to have suffered from ‘serious emotional distress’ as the incident triggered a post-traumatic stress reaction which manifested itself for the first time in his career with the service. of Oxnard fire.

The shooting victim, Samir Selgado of Santa Paula, survived. Richard Steven Valencia of Santa Paula was arrested days later and pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and other charges. Valencia is being held in Ventura County Jail without bond and his next court appearance is scheduled for April 11.

Lawyers for Garces and the city of Santa Paula both declined to comment on the case. Both sides have retained former law enforcement officers who have become consultants in police procedure as expert witnesses. City expert, former Pasadena Police Chief Phillip Sanchez, said 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 closed affair

The Star showed the body camera footage and transcripts of depositions to two independent experts in police procedure and the use of force: a UCLA law professor and a criminal justice professor at State University. from San Francisco. Both said Garces has a case to make against the city, though it’s unclear whether he will win his case.

“It’s not as open and closed as either side makes it sound,” said SFSU professor Jeffrey Snipes. He is also a consultant to law enforcement and has held positions with the United States Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union.

There are factors that work both for and against Garces in court, Snipes said. In his favour: he was unarmed and not suspected of any crime; in fact, he acted like a good Samaritan and might well have saved Selgado’s life. He also did not initiate a physical confrontation with Rivera, and prior to Rivera’s arrival, he was calmly fielding questions from the other officers.

On the other hand, body camera footage shows Garces engaging in a heated confrontation with Rivera, insulting him, insulting him and coming forward to shout at him closer.

“It became a personal beef very quickly,” Snipes said.

Whether Garces’ conduct amounted to resisting or obstructing the officer will be a key point in the trial, should the case proceed to one, the two experts told the Star.

“I kinda feel for the guy,” Snipes said, referring to Garces. “He stops, he gives help, everything is quiet and calm, until this officer shows up. … He’s probably saving this guy’s life. Every step he takes is appropriate: he picks up the gun, he pulls out the bullets, he pulls the knife out, and then Rivera comes in and turns the whole thing upside down.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Garces’ legal rights have been violated. Snipes said he “can’t really see a ton of evidence in his favor” on most of the allegations, including excessive force.

“It only works if the shoulder and wrist grip wasn’t reasonable,” Snipes said. “It looked like a very standard restraint to me. It didn’t look particularly forceful.”

The allegation of denial of medical care will also be difficult to prove, Snipes said, because officers called an ambulance for Garces when he requested one.

Snipes said Garces has a stronger case on his negligence claim, which could revolve around whether Rivera should have detained him. The city argued in legal papers that Garces was hindering Rivera in his duties, but Snipes said she will have to show that Garces did more to hinder the officer than yelling at and insulting him.

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Joanna Schwartz, the UCLA law professor who also reviewed 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 at the scene,” Schwartz said. Factors considered by a court include the seriousness of any crime the person may be suspected of; if they pose an immediate threat to officers or bystanders; and whether they resist or attempt to evade arrest.

Schwartz said his analysis of body camera footage indicates Garces was not suspected of any crime, did not resist or evade arrest, and did not pose a threat to officers – “although he was clearly exercising his rights to freedom of expression”. she says.

“The city and the officer can argue that he was disruptive, which prevented them from doing their job, and that they needed to take action for that reason,” Schwartz said. “That is, broadly speaking, the issue that I expect will be challenged and litigated by discovery and trial.”

The judge ordered Garces and the city to consult with a private mediator in hopes of settling the matter out of court. If that isn’t settled, the judge has scheduled preliminary hearings on the admissibility of certain evidence for July, with a jury trial scheduled for August 8.

Lawyers for Garces and the city declined to say whether the case is likely to be settled before it goes to trial, but Schwartz said lawsuits like this 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 surveillance reporter for the Ventura County Star. Contact him at This story was made possible by a grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation Fund to Support Local Journalism.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Santa Paula sued for detaining man who helped victim shoot


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