On March 12, 1997, emphatically rejecting prosecution claims of rampant police conspiracy and cover-up, a Ventura County jury acquitted Oxnard Officer Robert Flinn on two counts of assault under color of authority, while the jury hung 11-1 and 7-5 in favor of the officer on two other such counts. Nine days later, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Stephen Z. Perren dismissed the latter counts, after the prosecution advised the Court that retrying the case would be futile. Officer Flinn was defended by Bill Hadden of Silver, Hadden & Silver.
The criminal investigation began on January 27, 1996, when Flinn and another officer received a radio call of a possible burglary in progress in the Colonia area of Oxnard. One suspect was temporarily taken into custody, but then managed to flee. The second suspect, Juan Lopez, who was under the influence of heroin, dropped items he had stolen from a residence and led Flinn on a foot pursuit over walls and through the yards of area homeowners, ignoring Flinn’s orders to stop.
As Flinn continued the chase, Lopez began to go over a fence in the front yard of one home when he suddenly turned around and raised his hands. Lopez did not get on the ground as directed by the officer and began to close the distance between himself and Flinn. Flinn sensed that the suspect, was, at minimum, about to renew his flight or, at maximum, about to take Flinn’s gun. Flinn struck the suspect in the chest with his left hand which contained his flashlight and threw Lopez to the ground. After a struggle, Lopez was taken into custody with the assistance of Officer Victor Boswell and former Officer David Hawtin. Lopez emerged from the arrest with a cut in the area of his left eyebrow which required eight stitches to close. At the scene of the arrest, Hawtin said nothing to Flinn about concern of misconduct by Flinn.
Immediately thereafter, Hawtin and Flinn drove in Hawtin’s car with suspect Lopez through the neighborhood looking for the second suspect. Later, Flinn continued his search for the second suspect on foot while Hawtin followed a paramedic unit containing Lopez to a local hospital. The cut suffered by Lopez over his left eye was described by an attending physician as “an insignificant injury.”
At the hospital, Lopez was overheard by another officer to say that he was going to sue the City for $250,000 and that he would soon be living “on easy street.” He complained to a sergeant that an officer had brutally struck him several times in the head with a flashlight. When asked to describe the perpetrator, Lopez said that he thought it was Hawtin. Hawtin interjected that he didn’t do it, and later told the sergeant that Flinn had struck Lopez. Specifically, Hawtin told the sergeant that Flinn had smashed Lopez in the head while Lopez was in the standing position. Furthermore, Hawtin claimed that, even though he was facing away from Lopez’s head, “I could hear the flashlight hitting the guy there on the head.”
Boswell denied seeing any misconduct, acknowledging that there were certain impediments to his viewing the entire incident.
The matter was investigated for months during which the District Attorney’s office sought to dig up any prior complaints of misconduct against Flinn. Flinn was later charged with three counts of violating Penal Code Section 149, Assault Under Color of Authority, for his actions in taking Lopez into custody, as well as an additional count of 149 for allegedly having kicked gang member Victor Aguiar in the face during of an arrest in December 1995.
In its opening statement, the prosecution alleged that various members of the Oxnard Police Department would lie about the circumstances of the two incidents so as to cover up the alleged misconduct of Flinn. It began by calling all of the officers present at the Aguiar arrest to the stand in an effort to develop discrepancies to support the anticipated testimony of Aguiar and a fellow gang member, both of whom had told representatives of the prosecution that Flinn had kicked Aguiar. The strategy backfired.
Several officers credibly testified that they saw no misconduct by Flinn, as did two citizen witnesses. The story alleged by Aguiar at trial significantly varied from that which he had previously related to investigators, and he even failed to identify Flinn as the alleged perpetrator in open court. Aguiar’s friend testified that he did not remember seeing any kicking and denied making any previous statements to the contrary.
As to the counts regarding Lopez, defense attorney Bill Hadden proved that the physical evidence in the case was completely incompatible with the allegations made by Lopez and Hawtin. Lopez’s attending physician testified that the cut over Lopez’s eye was consistent with him having been thrust to a concrete surface, as he was in the front yard of the residence where he was arrested The doctor further testified that Lopez’s injuries were totally inconsistent with having been directly struck by even one blow to the head by a flashlight, never mind the multiple instances alleged by Lopez and Hawtin. In addition, County Criminalist John Houde testified that there was no blood, hair or tissue residue found on Flinn’s flashlight, which was taken from him immediately after the incident.
Much of the defense case consisted of savagely attacking the credibility of Lopez and Hawtin. Lopez was forced to admit on cross-examination that he had lied to police and to the D.A.’s office about matters relating to their investigations and that on another occasion he had knowingly made a false report of police abuse. Conversely, Hawtin – who acknowledged that he had not gotten along well with Flinn in the past – was shown to have had no opportunity to carefully view the offense about which he sought to testify, and to have attempted to fill in gaps of perception with mere assumptions. After two and one-half days of deliberations, the jury returned its findings in favor of the officer, with several commenting that the prosecution was on a mere “witch hunt.” Other jurors readily dismissed the prosecution’s claim of police cover-up and conspiracy, noting that Flinn and other Oxnard officers just appeared to be “doing their job.”
The Oxnard Police Department is finalizing its administrative investigation and Flinn is hopeful of returning to work soon. Said Flinn, “All I was doing in both of these incidents was protecting the citizens of Oxnard. I want to get back to doing so again as soon as possible.”