On March 23, after deliberating for 40 minutes, a jury emerged from the jury room inside the courthouse in Vista. The 12 members had reached a verdict. As they filed into the jury box, the defendant, Michael Shields, stood beside his attorney, David Boertje. Shields’s heart pounded as the foreman announced the verdict: not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. It was a quick and easy end to a long and difficult year.
It started on the evening of February 25, 2009, when Shields, a licensed mortgage broker and full-time college student, was driving his red Jeep Liberty southeast on Barnard Drive in Oceanside after attending guitar class at MiraCosta College. According to Shields, as he approached a man on a bicycle — later identified as Martin Rios — Rios wove from the bike lane into the middle of the road. Shields passed him on the right. Moments later, Shields looked in his rearview mirror and saw Rios making an obscene hand gesture. Shields turned right on College Boulevard and got into the left-hand turn lane at the intersection of College and Vista Way. Traffic was backed up at the light, and Shields began inching forward. He glanced in his rearview mirror and saw Rios approaching on the driver’s side. As Rios pedaled past the Jeep, he spit on the windshield, slapped the hood, then raised his right leg to kick the fender. But, Shields said, he kicked too late and missed, losing his balance and causing the bike to fall in front of the car, toward the center of the vehicle. Shields jerked the steering wheel to the left, avoiding Rios but running over the bike’s rear tire.
Shields got out of his vehicle and Rios ran up to him. At that time, a man pulled up on a motorcycle. He, too, was aggressive toward Shields. The man asked Rios if he was all right. Shields said he heard the man call Rios “Martin.” The witness then asked what Shields did for a living. Shields said that he was a broker, and the man said, “You hear that, Martin?”
Oceanside police officer J. Dominique arrived on the scene at 5:58 p.m. According to the police report, Officer Dominique interviewed Rios first. Rios complained of pain in his right shoulder. The police report indicated that he had an eight-inch-by-four-inch “scrape” on his left thigh.
Both Rios and the witness, Trevor Hudson, claimed Shields intentionally ran Rios down. Rios said that after the spitting incident, Shields became angry and punched the gas, running Rios over, dragging him across two lanes of traffic and over the center divider.
Shields told Dominique that the man on the bicycle had fallen and Shields had swerved out of the way, hitting the bike but not the man.
After interviewing the three men, the officer determined that “Shields had used his vehicle as a weapon.” He arrested Shields for assault with a deadly weapon and transported him to the Oceanside Police Department in handcuffs.
After being processed, Shields waived his Miranda rights and sat down with Officer Dominique to give a recorded audio statement. He described the events, and he said that after the collision, a man on a motorcycle pulled up and immediately turned to Rios and said, “Martin, are you okay?” In the recorded audio statement Shields said he “thought that was weird,” that the witness knew Martin’s name.
Shields said that before he was hauled off to the detention facility in Vista, Officer Dominique told him not to worry, that the case would go nowhere.
Officer Dominique was wrong. Shields was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, a felony. The one thing that went nowhere was a copy of the recorded interview conducted by Officer Dominique. That recording wouldn’t surface for 13 months, until two days before Shields’s trial began.
During those 13 months, Shields often asked his lawyer, David Boertje, about the recording. Shields assured him that the witness and the victim were friends. How else would the witness have known Rios’s name that day? Despite Shields’s queries, there was no evidence of the recorded statement and there was no mention of it in the police report, as is required.
Shields attended preliminary hearings and learned that if convicted he could face up to four years in prison. In the following months, he became depressed. He developed a bleeding ulcer. Most mornings he awoke to a guttural, dry cough that caused him to run to the toilet to vomit blood. His marriage of eight years began to fall apart. He spent all the money he had saved for his first semester at the University of California San Diego. He contemplated fleeing to Costa Rica. He dropped 30 pounds. The depression became so severe that one month before trial, Shields found himself researching suicide on the internet. One morning he opened a bottle of Vicodin and stuffed a handful of pills into his mouth. He held a glass of water in his hand. Instead of chugging the water and the pills, he spit them out into the sink.
As the trial neared, the district attorney’s office offered a plea bargain: a one-year mandatory prison sentence and the felony charge on Shields’s record would be lowered to a misdemeanor after three years.
On March 31, outside a coffee shop in Linda Vista, Shields and David Boertje sat down to talk about the case. Animated and visibly upset, Shields discussed his depression, the toll the case had taken on him, both personally and financially, and the decision not to take the plea bargain.
“I almost took the plea to avoid a very scary prison sentence,” said Shields. “I stuck to my guns against the advice of my parents and attorney. They all said the risk is too great. I knew I was innocent.”
Two days before the trial began, Boertje said, he received news from deputy district attorney Elisabeth Silva that a notation in an evidence log saying “audio CD” had been discovered. Silva told Boertje that she didn’t know what was on the audio CD.
“The recorded statement should have been something that was disclosed immediately,” Boertje said. “In the report, there was no mention of a recorded statement, no mention that they had the tape.”
“Before they released the recording, it was basically my word against the Oceanside police,” interjected Shields. “Who is the jury going to believe, the police officer or the ‘baby punching’ criminal?”
At 8:30 on the morning of March 15, the first day of the trial, Boertje went to the district attorney’s office, located one floor above the courtroom in the North County Regional Center, to listen to the audio CD. He confirmed that it was Shields’s missing statement. Silva asked Boertje if his client would like to reschedule the trial. He said no.
On the second day of trial, Officer Dominique took the stand. During cross-examination, Boertje asked him about the audio statement. Deputy district attorney Silva objected. The lawyers and judge met in a sidebar. Silva indicated that she was filing a motion to exclude the recorded statement from evidence.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Boertje. “I said, ‘First off, you didn’t give [the recorded statement] to me until yesterday, and now you don’t want the jury to hear what my client said right after the incident?’ There was no basis to exclude it.”
The judge allowed the statement to be used in court. A week later, Shields was exonerated.
“The judge in my case was completely outraged at the district attorney,” Shields wrote to the Reader on March 23, the day of his acquittal. “[He] scolded the District Attorney and asked her why the audio statement was disclosed the day of trial. [Silva] claimed that she ‘read the police officer the riot act.’… My audio statement was crucial evidence that proved I was innocent.”
Shields, however, is not the only person arrested in Oceanside whose recorded interview has disappeared. In April 2009, two months after Officer Dominique interrogated Shields, Oceanside police officer Damon Smith testified in court that he had failed to submit into evidence a recorded statement with the defendant in a domestic violence case.
Five months later, the San Diego County district attorney’s office released 37 undisclosed recorded statements that Smith had conducted during a period of almost four years.
Oceanside resident Woody Higdon has followed the Officer Smith matter. Higdon, who is middle-aged, worked as a police officer in Santa Ana and Garden Grove for three years. Currently a government watchdog, he is well known around Oceanside’s council chambers and police department. He speaks at city council meetings about corruption in Oceanside’s police department. He has submitted criminal misconduct complaints to the district attorney’s office, the Oceanside Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation about the handling of the Officer Smith situation. Higdon says the fact that two Oceanside police officers have failed to log recorded statements into evidence shows that a departmental policy failure exists in both the Oceanside Police Department and the district attorney’s office, which has not addressed the situation by charging Officer Smith or Officer Dominique for obstruction of justice and evidence tampering.
“Nothing has happened,” says Higdon. “I never got a follow-up from the district attorney’s office or the police department.
“Now we know from the Shields case of another officer hiding audiotapes. The officer finds out that this man was not the suspect but the victim, and the tape goes missing for a year while the district attorney’s office pressures this guy to cop out to a lesser offence. They were about to put an innocent man in prison for assault with a deadly weapon. That’s felony obstruction of justice and evidence tampering, not to mention falsification of an official police report.”
Higdon says he plans to file a criminal misconduct complaint against Officer Dominique.
Paul Levikow, spokesperson for the San Diego County district attorney’s office, says that no charges will be filed against either Officer Smith or Officer Dominique for the incidents.
“These aren’t criminal,” said Levikow during an April 23 phone interview. “The responsibility lands on the prosecutor to turn over all evidence. If there’s evidence out there that the prosecutor doesn’t know about, it is incumbent upon the prosecutor; that’s how it works.
“We took the corrective action with Smith,” Levikow continued. “We notified all the defense attorneys and allowed them the chance to file an appropriate motion. Just because he had recordings that he didn’t turn over doesn’t mean that they were germane to the case or that they affected the outcome.”
Asked if the district attorney’s office had discussed the matter with the Oceanside Police Department, Levikow responded, “We probably reminded them that anytime you record a defendant in a criminal case that it is discoverable.”
In an April 13 email, Sergeant Jeff Brandt of the Oceanside Police Department said, “Oceanside Police Department has policies and procedures in place with the handling of evidence in criminal cases. The Oceanside Police Department reviewed these policies and procedures with every member after an isolated incident was discovered regarding the way recorded statements were being handled.
“In regards to the [Shields] case,” Sergeant Brandt continued, “the recorded statement, along with all the other evidence was placed into the Evidence Locker by the officer at the time of the incident pursuant to departmental policy. Apparently, while the tape-recorded statements had been properly placed into Evidence, due to an isolated clerical oversight, the recorded statement was subsequently not sent to Court along with the other evidence in the case. This oversight had nothing to do with the officer’s handling of the evidence.”
After spending over $17,000 on bail, legal fees, private investigators, and accident reconstruction specialists, Shields isn’t satisfied with the excuse provided by the Oceanside Police Department. “What happened to me could happen to anyone. This needs to go public, and I’m shocked that I’m not the only one that has intentionally had their recorded statement buried. If I had pled guilty, the Oceanside Police Department would have completely gotten away with this.
“For over one year, the Oceanside Police Department buried my recorded audio statement and denied that I ever gave one,” said Shields, his voice beginning to quiver. “I almost lost my marriage. I thought about suicide every day.”