“Civil rights attorney to Fiesta partier!” said attorney Jaime Segall-Gutierrez as he took off and folded his sport coat, hanging it in the rear window of his Honda Civic. Segall-Gutierrez was leaving a courtroom at 9:30 a.m. on Friday morning, and confetti had already sprinkled the streets as eager parade watchers lined their lawn chairs along State Street. The sidewalk was already hot.
Referred to as “thunder dog” by his uncle, Segall-Gutierrez, 46, is a bold and distinctive character among classic lawyers. A drawn image of a mask and the phrase “Luchador del Pueblo” — Warrior People — appears on his business card. He earned his degree from New College of California School of Law in the mid-1990s and has been a self-described “people’s lawyer” ever since.
He is most memorable in Santa Barbara for his press conference at City Hall in January where he filed a complaint against the city and its police department, claiming the chief had defamed his six clients who had been named as gang members, gang associates, or drug customers during the Operation Falling Dawn media event held late last year. (The city rejected the complaint, and City Attorney Ariel Calonne said in May the police chief is protected from civil liability when performing an official duty. Segall-Gutierrez has a couple months to file a lawsuit in state court.)
Also in January, Segall-Gutierrez filed a claim against the city and its police department for the death of Brian Tacadena, the 48-year-old man who was shot and killed by a police officer on Labor Day weekend last year. The city also denied that claim.
Recruited by PODER, Segall-Gutierrez continues to pop up every so often and just recently was appointed as an associate member to the board of Palabra, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth. As the Fiesta celebration geared up last Friday morning, we made our way to Joe’s Café, where spirited patrons made the joint feel more like 10 p.m. than 10 a.m. We landed one of the only open tables and talked about his background, his work with the United Farm Workers, and what he dubbed “creative lawyering.”
How did you get into practicing law? I didn’t finish high school. I was living in Agoura Hills in Malibu. I didn’t do well in school. I dealt with a lot of racism. I dropped out halfway through 10th grade. When I was 17, I joined the United Farm Workers. A lot people need to understand that the farmworkers movement is about more than labor and agriculture. There’s a lot of overlap with politics and race and civil rights.
My passion for fighting against police brutality stems from my activism from the Brown Berets and United Farm Workers. Thirty percent of my cases are pro bono. I have a standing policy: Anyone who gets nailed in the picket lines, I represent for free.
What I do is flip the script. Law enforcement is charging my client some bullshit charge because they got popped on the picket line. I flip it on them. I put them on the defensive. That’s how it should be because my client was abused. Most of the time, I’ll simultaneously file the claim for damages. I get a lot of people, parents of the children with development issues. The transgender community. Cases against Border Patrol. I am living the dream. This is my passion and my calling.
How did you end up coming to Santa Barbara? Through my activism work my name got out there. So among the activist community, I am popular because of the pro bono work I do, these police brutality cases.
What’s your sense of Santa Barbara? I would argue there is a culture of racism in Santa Barbara. I’m not talking about overt. I’m talking about embedded. There’s no cultural sensitivity for the Chicano/Mexicano community. The Chicano/Mexicano community have been disenfranchised. Once, the arrival of the Spaniard, and the second, the arrival of the Americans. What you have as a result of that is misplaced aggression, sub economies, or gangs. Santa Barbara doesn’t have a gang problem. What they have is a problem with the Mexicano community being disenfranchised.
The District Attorney’s Office is running roughshod over the Chicano community. Today, luckily for us, we saw a judge who is enlightened and compassioned, and he struck a balance between maybe a crime has happened here, but does this nonviolent crime require a life sentence of marginalization for this woman? And he said no. I want to commend him for that.
And I also want to commend the gang injunction judge. The ACLU has confirmed that it is unprecedented in this nation. I think this is a model for the rest of this country. All a gang injunction is, is a justification for racial profiling. I think there is a culture of racism within law enforcement in Santa Barbara County. I think for the most part it is not conscious. It’s subconscious. All cops who are cops now came into the culture. All of the Chicanos in the Eastside and Westside were grown into this culture.
Why did you decide to take the slander case against the city? What happened was I was asked by PODER to help against the gang injunction, but they already had 12 attorneys. So I took a step back and looked at the magna. They also told me about a press conference where the police identified people as gang members and that they are trying to increase the numbers and the evidence to justify the gang injunction. So I said we are going after the chief for public slander and libel. And that is going to be the coup de grace in the gang injunction because what it’s going to do is change the public opinion.
We are going to file it in state court. The issues here are invasion of privacy and defamation. We are going to file it here in state court. There’s no federal law. These are civil matters. We have laws in California with public defamation. My hope is that the police chief will come forward and make a public apology and compensate the clients.