POLSON — The two law enforcement officers who handled the 2016 arrest of 71-year-old Larry Martinez testified Thursday that their actions were necessary under the circumstances that day.
The officers are the subjects of Martinez's excessive use of force complaint against Lake County.
Then-detention officer Cody Strubel took the stand for more than an hour on Day Three of the trial, scheduled to wrap up Friday, picking at his fingernails and speaking rapidly while describing the moments that ended with Martinez bloodied and unconscious on the detention center floor.
“In assisting him to go the way I wanted him to go, he ended up on the ground with me doing everything I could to keep him from landing on his face on the ground,” Strubel said.
In his lawsuit filed against Lake County law enforcement in August 2017, Martinez alleges the handcuffs snapped on his wrists that afternoon were so tight they caused nerve damage, and that Strubel caused him serious injuries by body-slamming him to the ground at the jail for not listening to directions.
Martinez testified on Wednesday that his hearing had been completely impaired since birth, while the law enforcement officers accused of excessive use of force say they had not been trained in handling someone with such an impairment.
Martinez was arrested after allegedly drunkenly driving his vehicle off the road and getting stuck in a ditch on July 31, 2016. That day he had been out golfing and then to a bar with his wife, Lauri, who is also listed as a plaintiff in the case. A blood sample later measured Martinez’s blood alcohol content at .288.
Lake County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Carlson, one of the defendants in the case, testified Thursday that he was en route to the crash scene when dispatch relayed information to him that would be key to how law enforcement initially handled the incident: The vehicle's two occupants were fighting, and a domestic dispute may have been underway.
That turned out to be not the case. Martinez’s wife was merely yelling and swiping at his shoulder to get him to turn off the car as first responders circled their vehicle. But before law enforcement determined there was no real fight, they separated Martinez from his wife, who would be the only person on the scene who could communicate with Martinez via sign language.
Jim Sanderson, then a Montana Highway Patrol captain who was on the scene that day, said uncuffing Martinez and giving him a pen and paper would not have been an intelligent option.
“We would call that 'giving him a weapon' and it would have been completely inappropriate in that situation,” Sanderson testified Thursday.
The second thing that gave Carlson a sense of urgency as he arrived at the scene was the lettering on the back of Martinez’s shirt: the Sons of Silence, an “outlaw” motorcycle group that had apparently drawn the attention of Lake County law enforcement. (No one has claimed Martinez to be an active or dangerous member of a motorcycle gang during this trial.)
“I see the T-shirt, which indicates to me that he’s possibly the guy I’ve heard about who’s in this motorcycle gang,” Carlson testified Thursday. “I was trying to take the element of surprise.”
Carlson, unaware of the hearing impairment, came up behind Martinez, handcuffed one hand and struggled to get control of Martinez’s other hand. Sometime after Martinez was fully in custody, law enforcement on the scene determined there was no domestic violence case, but Martinez was under arrest for driving under the influence, which meant he was the Montana Highway Patrol’s suspect.
Carlson and other law enforcement on the scene that day testified Thursday that Martinez repeatedly asked for the handcuffs to be removed, was “combative” in his resistance to being put in the back of the patrol car and struggling against orders given to him, giving law enforcement reason to employ some verbal force to bring him into compliance.
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“And how does verbal use of force work with an individual who is hearing-impaired?” asked Martinez's attorney Jason Williams, of Datsopoulos, MacDonald and Lind.
“Well, it doesn’t work that good,” Carlson replied.
In fact, Carlson said he had not had any training in handling people with hearing impairments over the course of his career, including his route through the Montana Law Enforcement Academy back in 1995. According to Lake County District Court filings, Strubel previously said such training was only “touched on” during his time at the police academy’s detention division. Lake County Sheriff Don Bell is also listed as a defendant in the case.
Strubel was nearing the end of his shift when he got word over the radio that MHP was bringing in a man to be processed for a DUI. There was no word, Strubel testified Thursday, that the man was hearing impaired.
Strubel, now 35, was a veteran of several different detention facilities, including the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, during the night in question. He no longer works for the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, and is now a laborer for a construction outfit in Missoula. For at least the second day in a row, he wore a University of Montana Grizzlies polo shirt to the proceedings.
Martinez arrived at the Lake County jail in the back of an MHP car and immediately jerked away from Strubel to resist going inside, Strubel testified. As they entered the sheriff’s office lobby, Strubel said Martinez again tried to pull away, so he took action.
“I assisted Mr. Martinez up against the brick wall to gain control,” Strubel said.
The portion of video shown during Wednesday’s proceedings shows Martinez, arms behind his back, leading Strubel into the lobby and sharply turning into the wall, belly and face first. Strubel testified on Thursday he gave repeated verbal orders to stop resisting. The video shows the pair continue into the lobby for a few steps before Martinez swings 180 degrees to the right and straight to the ground, face-first.
Strubel on Thursday said he did not intend to throw Martinez to the ground and described this motion as the result of an unsuccessful attempt to gain control over Martinez.
“I was trying to get Mr. Martinez to get him to go where I wanted him to go, to the right, and he wasn’t following where I was going and I had to take him in both hands and put him in the direction I wanted him to go,” Strubel said. “Well, as he was going one direction, I was trying to get him to go back the other way, and in that motion, we spun, lost footing and in an attempt to assist him in not going face-first into the ground I fell off to the left of him.
“Once he landed and I landed I heard a popping noise and at that point I saw blood,” Strubel said. “At that moment I thought he cracked his head open.”
During cross-examination, Strubel said he does believe having known about Martinez’s hearing impairment could have resulted in a different outcome.
“I could have took necessary steps to speak to Mr. Martinez more clear and slower,” he said.
Maureen Lennon, who leads the defense team with attorney Mitch Young, said she has two witnesses remaining before closing arguments on Friday. The jury is expected to go into deliberations by noon.