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Shafter Officer Acquitted of Assault with a Deadly Weapon

Posted on Sunday, April 01, 2012 at 12:00AM
Posted by Peter Horton

Shafter Police Officer Matthew Shelton was working routine patrol the night of January 30, 2009. In the early morning hours, Shelton responded to an alarm call at a local elementary school. He was the first officer to arrive. While investigating the call, Shelton came into contact with a suspect holding bolt cutters. The suspect had just removed a pane of glass from a classroom window while attempting to burglarize the school.

After the suspect ignored Shelton’s commands to get on the ground, Shelton armed his X-26 Taser, which was equipped with an infrared camera. Once Shelton armed his Taser, the attached camera began recording. The video subsequently shows Shelton approach the suspect while repeatedly ordering him to get down. At that point, the suspect slowly starts to move into a starting-block position. The video shows the suspect still failing to get on the ground as Shelton approaches. As the camera comes into focus, the suspect is seen facedown, but the lower half of his right arm is seen moving into a push-up position. At the same time, the suspect shifts his left hand in three separate furtive movements toward his waistband.

Shelton uses his baton to make contact with the suspect’s left forearm each time the suspect moves his left hand toward his waistband. The three separate baton contacts take place within 2.7 seconds. The video ends after another Shafter officer arrives and Shelton is able to holster his Taser and baton and take the suspect into custody. The suspect is then charged with several felony counts, ultimately pleading guilty to felony vandalism.

Months later, the infrared camera recording of the incident was found when Shelton’s Taser was audited. The Shafter Police Department interviewed the suspect while he was serving his sentence in county jail and, for the first time, the suspect indicated that he was struck in the head by Officer Shelton’s baton. The Shafter Police Department then forwarded the video and the suspect’s statement to the Kern County District Attorney’s (D.A.) Office for investigation.

The D.A. charged Shelton with assault with a deadly weapon — to wit, a baton (Penal Code § 245(a)1), assault under color of authority (Penal Code § 149) and filing a false police report (Penal Code § 118.1). The D.A. contended that Shelton struck the suspect in the head with his baton when he initially approached the suspect, causing him great bodily injury. The basis for the D.A.’s belief was unsubstantiated noises on the video that the D.A. alleged to have been baton strikes.

The D.A. further argued that a 3-centimeter laceration on the suspect’s head was caused by the alleged baton strike. The D.A.’s argument lacked merit for a variety of reasons. Most prominently, the suspect never told any of the medical providers who treated him that he was struck in the head with a baton by Officer Shelton. The medical records indicated that the suspect’s injuries were extremely minor. In fact, when the treating ER doctor was asked why he hadn’t ordered an X-ray he seemed perplexed and questioned which body part would have needed that procedure.

The case appeared to turn on the testimony of the defense experts. When it was initially determined that the infrared video in this case had to be broken down frame by frame, we contacted Michael Schott. Schott was able to enhance the video, explain the way the infrared camera gathers light and, most importantly, orient the jury and identify for them what each frame showed.

Don Cameron, a use-of-force expert with over 30 years of experience, was also invaluable. Cameron’s testimony dispelled the D.A.’s argument that a prone subject was not a threat to an officer. Cameron stated that Shelton was unaware of whether or not the suspect was armed. Cameron testified that an officer confronted with this set of facts would be forced to assume that the suspect was armed. And even though the suspect was facedown on the ground, his repeated movements toward his waistband, coupled with his attempts to push himself up, would be alarming to an officer. Specifically, Cameron demonstrated that a prone suspect could access a firearm and shoot an officer in less than three-fourths of a second.

In the end, it was Officer Shelton’s own testimony that put his contact with the suspect into context. The D.A. had focused solely on the time period in the video. The D.A. failed to acknowledge what happened before the recording started and after the recording ended. Shelton was able to explain the numerous commands given to the suspect before arming his Taser. He was also able to explain that the suspect attempted to flee after Shelton had holstered his Taser and baton and had to be pulled to the ground, causing the 3-centimeter laceration on the suspect’s head.

At the conclusion of the trial, the jury acquitted Shelton of the Penal Code § 245(a)1 charge and was hung on the Penal Code § 149 and Penal Code § 118.1 charges. The jury also found that Shelton was not guilty of the great bodily injury enhancement to the Penal Code § 245(a)1 charge.

Officer Shelton was pleased with the jury’s verdict and was grateful to have the opportunity to spend the holidays with his wife and young son. Officer Shelton would like to extend his deepest thanks to PORAC/ LDF for its support through these difficult times. Without the support of PORAC/LDF to provide the attorneys and experts needed to win, this case would not have had the correct outcome. As of the writing of this article, it appears the D.A. will not be retrying the hung verdicts and Shelton will be able to move on with his life.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.