VISTA, Calif. — Two San Diego County sheriff’s deputies displayed an “unreasonable and unnecessary” amount of force when they assaulted a handcuffed Vista man and his father during an arrest last year, a prosecutor said Wednesday during opening statements for the deputies’ trial. A defense attorney told jurors that the lawmen were dealing with a dangerous situation involving a domestic violence suspect who was determined to avoid jail.
Deputy Nicholas Morgan, 27, and Deputy Joshua Nahan, 31, potentially face jail time if convicted of misdemeanor counts of assault without lawful necessity by an officer for the May 7, 2018, arrests of Gerardo Martinez Jr., then 24, and Gerardo Martinez Sr., then 50.
The father and son were arrested after the deputies responded to a domestic violence call, in which Martinez Jr.’s girlfriend told a dispatcher that he’d punched her and refused to let her out of their apartment.
A 22-second video shot by a bystander appears to show the deputies shoving Martinez Sr. into a wooden fence while his son was pinned on a concrete sidewalk and repeatedly struck in the head.
Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said that footage, which garnered widespread public attention, only shows the tail end of the interaction, during which the deputies “exceeded the amount of force that they were allowed to use.”
About 8:30 a.m. that day, Morgan and another deputy, Kevin McCauley, arrived at the complex near East Vista Way and Palomar Place, where Trinh said they encountered Martinez Jr. outside, standing about five feet away from his girlfriend. Martinez Sr. was walking his dog nearby.
The prosecutor said McCauley — who was not charged — ordered Martinez Jr. to turn around and told him that if he didn’t follow orders, he would be Tased. Martinez Jr. did not respond to that order, and McCauley tackled him to the ground, where he and Morgan began punching him, Trinh said.
Martinez Sr., seeing that his son was hurt, approached, and was pushed away, according to the prosecutor. Martinez Sr. then began walking away, but Morgan took him to the ground and threw him into some bushes, Trinh said.
The prosecutor said the deputies ordered both men, who were each laying face-down, to put their arms behind their backs. However, neither man was able to do so, Trinh argued, because the deputies were on top of them, pinning their arms beneath their bodies. The prosecutor said that despite their inability to follow those commands, Morgan struck each man using his fists and knees. Martinez Jr. was also Tased for not following the commands, Trinh said.
At some point, Nahan and several other deputies arrived.
The widely circulated video recorded by the neighbor caught the moments that occurred next, in which Trinh argued there was no justification for Nahan shoving Martinez Sr. into the fence or Morgan delivering multiple “palm strikes” to the back of Martinez Jr.’s head.
Defense attorney Michael Begovich said the deputies were involved in a “chaotic, dangerous situation with two subjects actively resisting.”
Begovich played a series of clips from the 911 call Martinez’s girlfriend made, in which he can be overheard saying several times that he was “not going to jail over this.”
“Had (Martinez Jr.) cooperated with law enforcement, had he followed the commands, we wouldn’t be here today, folks,” Begovich said. “This was the man who moments earlier beat a woman, earned a felony conviction for it and said `I’m not going to jail.”‘
The attorney alleged that both men resisted deputies trying to subdue them, prompting the lawmen to do what was necessary to keep the situation from escalating.
“An ongoing domestic violence call with escalating violence is the most serious call that law enforcement responds to,” Begovich said. “That’s where people get hurt. That’s where people die.”
Begovich said that after being handcuffed, Martinez Sr. moved away from the two deputies who were escorting him, causing one of them to lose his grip, and leading Nahan to shove him into the fence.
The attorney said law enforcement training dictates that when” taking a subject who is combative and resisting like that, you turn and put them into a hard object, which can be a wall, which can be a fence.”
Begovich said that Martinez Jr. tensed and tried to get up when he heard his father impact the fence. Begovich called the strikes Morgan gave to Martinez Jr. “open hand distraction blows,” which he said is a reasonable use of force designed to control a resisting subject.
Last May, the District Attorney’s Office dropped all charges against Martinez Sr. before he could be arraigned, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. A resisting-arrest charge was dismissed against Martinez Jr., who pleaded guilty last July to a domestic violence-related charge and was sentenced to four years of probation.
Morgan faces up to two years in jail if convicted, and Nahan could be sentenced to one year in jail if found guilty, according to the District Attorney’s office.