Thursday, June 30, 2005

Española: Suit Calls Chase Reckless

By Martin Salazar, Journal Staff Writer

Española police were reckless when they chased a Dixon man on a winding, two-lane highway— a chase that left the man, Tito Sanchez, in a coma for more than eight months, a federal lawsuit contends.
The chase ended when Sanchez crashed his pickup into a concrete barrier on N.M. 68. Sanchez sustained major head injuries, a brain injury and a fractured spine and neck, according to the lawsuit, which also states that his mental and physical injuries are likely permanent.
The chase stemmed from a confrontation at an Española Sonic Drive-In between Sanchez and his daughter over her excessive cell phone bill and a past-due insurance payment. Police have said that Sanchez slammed his daughter's arm in a car door and punched her on the left temple during the argument.
Apparently wanting to cool off before the altercation escalated further, Sanchez hopped into his Ford Ranger pickup and drove off— unaware that someone had called police. When he noticed police chasing him, he tried to elude them. According to the lawsuit, officers ran other uninvolved motorists off the road while trying to stop Sanchez.
The police "knew or should have known that the danger created by the pursuit outweighed any immediate danger to the public if Mr. Sanchez would have remained at large," the lawsuit states.
The suit accuses the Española Police Department of allowing officers to engage in high-speed pursuits even when they aren't warranted. It also alleges that Española police destroyed evidence.
According to the lawsuit, officers chasing Sanchez used their vehicles to hit his vehicle, causing him to lose control of his pickup. His vehicle hit a concrete barrier, flipped several times, and Sanchez was ejected from the vehicle, the lawsuit states.
Police Chief Richard Guillen denied this week that officers bumped Sanchez's vehicle. He said it's untrue that officers removed paint scrapings from Sanchez's vehicle.
The lawsuit— brought on Sanchez's behalf by his father, Mauricio Sanchez— seeks unspecified compensatory, actual and punitive damages. Among the defendants named in the suit are Guillen, the city of Española, its police department and the officers involved in the chase.
The defendants denied the allegations made against them in a June 22 court filing and say that Sanchez was at least partly to blame for fleeing from police.
The lawsuit was initially filed in state district court in May but was transferred to federal court in Albuquerque last week.
Guillen said no officers were disciplined over the incident, which occurred July 16, 2003.
"We totally reviewed it," he said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "The officers followed protocol. It's unfortunate what happened to Mr. Sanchez."
Guillen said that at the time of the pursuit, all police knew was that there was an ongoing domestic abuse situation where a male was striking a female. He said that within a few minutes, one officer located the suspect. Sanchez ran a stop sign, and at that point officers needed to stop the vehicle, he said.
The chief said high-speed chases are necessary when it's a matter of life and death, when there's a danger of physical injury to someone, for DWI cases and for unknown felonies. Pursuing officers did not know at the time that Sanchez's behavior only rose to the level of a misdemeanor, Guillen said.
According to the lawsuit, Sanchez was a 43-year-old weapons inspector at Los Alamos National Laboratory when the incident occurred. The suit maintains that officers delayed calling for medical attention for Sanchez, further worsening his injuries.
"Mr. Sanchez is now undergoing serious rehabilitation, and to this day lacks sufficient understanding or capacity to make significant responsible decisions concerning his person, which will likely impact him for the remainder of his life," the suit states.
The lawsuit alleges negligent supervision and training, excessive use of force and negligence, among other claims.

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