A 24-year-old San Clemente man who sucker-punched a Black Whole Foods employee in Laguna Beach had his hate crime conviction overturned by a panel of appellate court justices, according to records obtained Thursday.
Fernando Ramirez, who was sentenced to six years in prison last January, was convicted in October 2019 of battery with serious bodily injury, with a sentencing enhancement for a hate crime, along with a misdemeanor hate crime count. The Fourth District Court of Appeal panel, however, on Wednesday reversed the hate crime conviction and enhancement, ruling it violated the defendant’s Miranda rights.
At issue was whether Ramirez’s racist comments to a Laguna Beach police officer while he was being taken to jail on June 15, 2019, could be used in the defendant’s trial because he had invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
The victim had started his shift at 5 a.m. at the grocery store at 283 Broadway and was on a lunch break about 10 a.m. when Ramirez approached him from behind, got his attention and punched him in the face as he turned around. He suffered a broken nose and nerve damage to a tooth, which required removal.
Ramirez was caught running from the attack and after he was put in the back of a squad car, he went on a racist rant about not wanting to be housed in jail with Black inmates.
The victim was so fearful following the attack that he cut off his dreadlocks to change his appearance by the time of Ramirez’s trial, according to the appellate court ruling.
Ramirez’s attorneys argued that his constitutional rights were violated when an Orange County Superior Court judge failed to suppress the defendant’s statement made to Laguna Beach Officer Randy Bitonti in the back of his cruiser, according to the appellate ruling. A video camera in the SUV captured the racist rant.
After Bitonti arrested the defendant, he handcuffed the suspect and asked him to sit on a curb and asked him what happened. Ramirez said “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,” according to the appellate ruling.
Bitonti then went on to question witnesses, and when he returned, another officer said Ramirez invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and said he wanted an attorney. Bitonti, however, kept prodding the defendant to talk and Ramirez said the victim had called him a racial slur in a transit center restroom, according to the ruling.
Prosecutors argued that Ramirez waived his Miranda rights by volunteering his racist motivation for the attack during a conversation with Bitonti as the officer drove him to jail. During the drive, Ramirez said he hated Black people and wanted to be “segregated” in jail, according to the ruling.
“Defense counsel responded that, despite knowing defendant had invoked his rights, Bitonti continued to ask questions likely to elicit an incriminating response without making any effort to re-Mirandize defendant,” according to the ruling.
Prosecutors argued that any questions Bitonti made were because he had trouble hearing the suspect through a plexiglass shield and the sound of the vehicle’s engine.
The appellate justices said, “No inquiry or reminder was made to defendant about his earlier advisal and invocation; no partial re-advisal or clarifying questions were asked. In fact, when Bitonti was first told about defendant’s unequivocal invocations by the second officer, his immediate response was to question defendant: `You don’t wanna talk? I thought you were gonna tell me what happened, though.”’
The case was sent back to the lower court for re-sentencing.
Kimberly Edds, a spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said her office was reviewing the ruling to determine whether to attempt another trial.
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