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By Shawn Raymundo
A civil rights violation and hate crime conviction of a San Clemente man who had sucker punched an African American grocery store worker in Laguna Beach in 2019 was reversed by a court of appeal last week.
In October 2019, Fernando Ramirez of San Clemente was found guilty by a Santa Ana jury of aggravated battery with serious bodily injury for running up behind the 26-year-old Whole Foods employee and punching him in the face, breaking his nose and several of his teeth.
Ramirez, who was 23 at the time, was also convicted of a misdemeanor violation of civil rights and a felony hate crime enhancement. He was sentenced to six years in prison—four years for the battery charge and two years for the hate crime, as well as six months, to be served concurrently, for the civil rights violation.
However, in its opinion, the Fourth District Court of Appeal overturned the civil rights violation and hate crime convictions after finding that statements Ramirez made about African Americans to the police during his June 15, 2019 arrest were obtained in violation of his Miranda rights.
The court agreed with Ramirez’s argument that “the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress statements he made to police after his arrest, claiming they were obtained in violation of Miranda v. Arizona.”
“As a result, the true finding on the hate crime enhancement and the civil rights conviction must both be reversed,” the court stated in its 12-page opinion handed down Jan. 13.
Kimberly Edds, the public information officers for the Orange County District Attorney’s office, said late Monday afternoon, Jan. 18, that the office is still reviewing the matter and that a decision whether to retry the case has not yet been made.
According to the appeals court, a couple who witnessed Ramirez strike the victim and run away, contacted 911, even following him until the police could arrive to apprehend him. Randy Bitonti, the Laguna Beach police officer who responded to the call, saw Ramirez run down the street “with his fists clenched and flailing around.”
After handcuffing Ramirez and instructing him to sit on a curb, Bitonti asked him what happened, to which he replied that “he was in a public restroom near the bus terminal when someone called him a name, and he had reacted to being called that name.”
A second police officer stayed with Ramirez while Bitonti went to speak with the witnesses. Upon his return to Ramirez, the second officer notified Bitonti that he had read Ramirez his Miranda rights and that Ramirez “was pleading the Fifth” and “doesn’t want to talk, he wants a lawyer.”
After the arrest, while in the backseat of Bitonti’s patrol SUV and on the way to the police station, Ramirez was recorded on camera asking why he was being arrested before later telling the officer, among other things, that he punched the victim because he “was Black and he hated all Black people.”
“Despite knowing defendant had invoked his Miranda rights, Bitonti asked defendant ‘You don’t wanna talk? I thought you were gonna tell me what happened … you didn’t really finish that’s why I was just curious if there was more do it,’ ” the court explained. “Defendant again said he had been called a racial slur by (the victim) in a transit center restroom.”
The appeals court also noted that Ramirez was recorded telling Bitonti to “Segregate me from the black prison. It was racial alright? It was a racial assault. OK?”
The opinion went on to also note that the prosecutor, during the trial, told the lower court he had no intention of using Ramirez’s statements to Bitonti “while he was seated on the curb and after he had received the Miranda advisement and invoked his right.”
“But with respect to the interchange inside the SUV, the prosecutor argued there was no Miranda violation because defendant had initiated the conversation to ensure he would be segregated from Black inmates at the jail, and because Bitonti was therefore no interrogating defendant,” the court opinion stated.
Ramirez’s attorney had argued that the purpose of Bitonti’s line of questioning was “likely to elicit an incriminating response” without rereading Ramirez his Miranda rights. Ramirez had sought to suppress the statements, but the lower court denied the motion.
The lower court “found that because defendant had initiated the backseat conversation, he implicitly waived his right ‘to remain silent,’ ” the appeal court’s opinion stated. “Notably the (lower) court made no findings regarding defendant’s concomitant right to counsel, which defendant had also invoked.”
The appeal court, in its opinion, noted that Ramirez was never reminded about his previous invocation of Miranda rights. Furthermore, it stated that the SUV conversation was the only evidence presented during trail, establishing Ramirez’s racial motivations.
As a result of the appeal court’s finding, the hate crime and civil rights violation convictions were overturned and the sentences vacated. The aggravated battery charge, and resulting conviction, still stand.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.