Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Police Settle Death Lawsuit

Wednesday, August 2, 2006
By Martin Salazar
Journal Staff Writer

A lawsuit filed over the September 2004 State Police shooting that left a ChimayĆ³ man dead has been settled, parties on both sides of the case confirmed Tuesday.
The amount of the settlement— executed in late April— wasn't disclosed.
Leo Lopez, 44, was fatally shot by an undercover State Police narcotics agent during a drug investigation on Sept. 22, 2004. His family filed a wrongful death suit in October 2005 alleging that police failed to identify themselves, that the officer shot Lopez without provocation and that authorities then withheld medical treatment, causing his death.
State Police have said agents identified themselves as police officers when Lopez, who was inside his truck, "aggressively backed up in an apparent attempt to use his vehicle as a weapon against the officers." A State Police officer shot at the driver "while trying to protect himself and others from being severely injured or killed," the agency said.
An investigative grand jury determined in October that the shooting was justified, though the attorney representing the Lopez family has previously said that the grand jury may not have been given all the information in the case.
Plaintiffs attorney Robert Rothstein said he was bound by a confidentiality clause in the settlement and couldn't disclose how much the Lopez family was paid to drop its suit, which had been filed in state district court in Tierra Amarilla.
"My clients were very pleased with the overall settlement and glad to put it behind them," Rothstein said.
A stipulated order of dismissal dropping officer Sean Wallace, who the suit identified as the shooter, and Wallace's former supervisor Roman Jimenez as defendants was filed on April 26. On May 3, a stipulated dismissal order was filed dropping the suit against the remaining defendants— the State Police and the New Mexico Department of Public Safety.
DPS spokesman Peter Olson said he was prohibited by statute from disclosing the settlement amount, but he said the settlement wasn't an admission of wrongdoing by DPS or State Police.
"There are many, many reasons why lawsuits are settled," Olson said. "Among them are expediency and saving taxpayer money for prolonged lawsuits or trials."
Under state law, settlements handled by the state Risk Management Division remain confidential for six months.
Olson said Wallace is still a State Police officer. Jimenez, who had been overseeing the Region III narcotics task force, is now assistant district commander for the State Police district in Deming.
Wallace was named in another 2003 lawsuit alleging excessive force when he worked for State Police in Las Vegas. Wallace had been accused in the suit of battering a man after pulling him over without probable cause. The suit was settled for $19,999 in September 2005.
State Police have refused to confirm that Wallace was indeed the officer who fatally shot Lopez. The agency also has denied multiple requests from the Journal and other media outlets in New Mexico to inspect incident reports from the Sept. 22 shooting that resulted in Lopez's death.
The Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican, Rio Grande Sun and the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Foundation for Open Government filed suit against DPS in August 2005 to get access to the reports. That case is still pending.

No comments: