San Francisco, CA — A San Francisco chef who was falsely arrested in an SFPD robbery sting was cleared by a jury Tuesday evening.
Jury members deliberated less than 15 minutes before finding Matthew Martinez, 28, not guilty of one count of grand theft, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Prithika Balakrishnan. Martinez faced up to a year in jail if convicted.
Martinez was arrested Oct. 6, 2010 following a confusing encounter with a seemingly drunk man who asked Martinez to sell him a cigarette, Balakrishnan said. The staggering man holding a beer was one of eight undercover officers near Eighth and Mission streets, part of SFPD’s controversial Robbery Abatement Team. The unit has drawn criticism as a costly operation that entraps San Francisco’s poorest residents.
Martinez testified during the weeklong trial that he handed the man a cigarette. In response, Martinez said, the man gestured at Martinez with his chest—a move Martinez interpreted as the man offering him the money that was falling out of his breast pocket.
Martinez testified that he took out a single bill and pushed the remaining bills safely back into the man’s pocket.
“At that moment, an arrest signal that never should have been given set off a series of mistakes, ending in the prosecution of an innocent man,” Balakrishnan said.
Martinez said he was shocked and confused as police officers threw him up against a car and handcuffed him.
“I’m an honest person. I have never been accused of anything like this and I had no idea why I was being arrested,” Martinez said. “I was in jail for three hours before I was told why I was there.”
During the trial, jury members heard Martinez’ taped interrogation by three police officers, in which Martinez appeared confused and consistently responded to questions by insisting, “I honest to God thought he was asking to buy a cigarette from me.”
The jury also heard from character witnesses who detailed Martinez’s background, including his work as a chef in Portland, New York City and San Francisco.
“He’s been in supervisory positions. He’s been in charge of inventory checks and given keys to liquor cabinets. It didn’t make sense that he would suddenly decide to launch a pick-pocketing career on Oct. 6,” Balakrishnan said.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi applauded the jury’s decision and said Martinez’ arrest is an example of how such robbery stings can snare innocent people.
“This case illustrates how easily the line between crime prevention and crime manufacturing can be crossed,” Adachi said.