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Roybal-Mack v. New Mexico Department of Public Safety

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 12, 2017

ANTONIA ROYBAL-MACK, as Personal Representative of the Wrongful Death Estate of KORI LYNN WOODS, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW MEXICO DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY, OFFICER MARK QUINTANA and OFFICER DIEGO MENDOZA, individually and in their official capacities, and JOHN and JANE DOES #1-10, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AS TO COUNT I BASED ON QUALIFIED IMMUNITY

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court upon a Motion for Summary Judgment based on Qualified Immunity, filed on July 12, 2017 by Defendants New Mexico Department of Public Safety(“DPS”), Officer Mark Quintana and Officer Diego Mendoza (“Defendants”) (Doc. 19). Having reviewed the parties' pleadings and the applicable law, the Court finds that Defendants' motion is well-taken and, therefore, is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff's claims arise from the Defendant Officer's high-speed pursuit of a vehicle driven by Kyle Mawhorter (“Mawhorter”), in which Kori Lynn Woods was a passenger and which resulted in a single-vehicle collision killing Ms. Woods.

         The facts in the Complaint are summed up in the Joint Status Report (Doc. 13). They bear repeating for purposes of context. In November 2016 near Clovis, New Mexico, at night, New Mexico State Police (“NMSP”) Officer Quintana initiated a traffic stop for speeding on a Chevrolet pick-up truck driven by Mawhorter in which Ms. Woods was riding as a passenger. Officer Quintana activated his patrol unit's emergency equipment directing Mawhorter to stop the vehicle on the shoulder of the highway. Mawhorter failed to stop and Officer Quintana pursued Mawhorter (at speeds, according to Defendants, close to 100 m.p.h.) along U.S. 70 traveling northbound. NMSP Officer Mendoza was also patrolling that stretch of the highway and was dispatched to assist Officer Quintana. Both police cruisers were using their overhead emergency lights and sirens, and recorded the chase on their dash-cam videos (attached as Exhibits 2 & 4).

         Defendants' version of events is that at one point Mawhorter deliberately crossed into the southbound lanes of U.S. 70 and began traveling north at speeds of 90-100 mph against oncoming traffic at night, causing the southbound vehicles to swerve in order to avoid being hit. The officers at that point decided to continue their pursuit of the vehicle for public safety reasons.

         About five minutes into the pursuit, Officer Mendoza attempted a Pursuit Intervention Technique (“PIT”) maneuver on Mawhorter's vehicle. The first PIT maneuver was unsuccessful, but the second one brought Mawhorter's vehicle to a stop. However, after stopping, Mawhorter reversed the pick-up truck and again began traveling north on the southbound lanes of U.S. 70. According to Plaintiff's version, Officer Mendoza advised dispatch at this time that there was a female passenger (Ms. Woods) in Mawhorter's vehicle. Officer Quintana attempted a third but unsuccessful PIT maneuver when Mawhorter began traveling west on the eastbound lanes of Brady Avenue in Clovis, New Mexico, that is, continuing to drive against traffic. The pursuit continued until Mawhorter lost control of the pick-up truck and crashed into a metal fence[1] at the intersection of West Brady Avenue and South Hull Street in Clovis. Mawhorter fled the vehicle on foot but was eventually found in a field and ultimately pled guilty to various felony charges stemming from the incident. Ms. Woods was pronounced dead at the scene.

         On March 31, 2017, Plaintiff as the personal representative of Ms. Woods' estate, filed a five-count complaint in the Second Judicial District Court in Bernalillo County, asserting federal civil rights and state law tort claims. Defendants removed the case to federal court on May 15, 2017 and filed a motion seeking dismissal of the state claims asserted in Counts II, III, IV and V. The Court granted Defendants' motion, finding that Plaintiffs' claims asserted under §41-4-12 of the Tort Claims Act were premised on negligent conduct, which is insufficient for a waiver of immunity under the Tort Claims Act. Doc. 18 at 6.

         Plaintiff then filed a motion seeking the Court's reconsideration of its rulings on the state law claims and a request to amend the complaint, both of which the Court denied. Doc. 40. With the dismissal of the state law claims asserted in Counts II, III, IV and V, only Count I remains in this case, asserting civil rights violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983.

         I. Legal Standard

         Defendants have asserted the defense of qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability for civil damages “insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 231 (2009); Romero v. Story, 672 F.3d 880 (10th Cir. 2012).

         When a defendant moves for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity, the plaintiff bears a heavy two-fold burden. Medina v. Cram, 252 F.3d 1124, 1128 (10th Cir. 2001). The plaintiff must put forward evidence showing (1) that the defendant violated plaintiff's constitutional rights, and (2) the right at issue was clearly established at the time of the violation. Id. If the plaintiff fails to establish either part of the two-part inquiry, the court must grant the defendants qualified immunity. Id. If the plaintiff meets her burden of coming forward with facts or allegations which would demonstrate that the defendant's alleged violation should have been apparent in light of preexisting law, then the defendant assumes the normal summary judgment burden of establishing that no material facts remain in dispute that would defeat its claim of qualified immunity. See Woodward v. City of Worland, 977 F.2d 1392, 1396-97 (10th Cir. 1992). In determining whether summary judgment is appropriate, the Court considers the facts and all reasonable inferences drawn therefrom in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Hollander v. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals Corp., 289 F.3d 1193, 1214 (10th Cir. 2002).

         II. Undisputed Facts[2]

         The facts describing the pursuit as well as other material facts have been presented above in the background and are undisputed, despite Plaintiff's efforts to create disputes which the Court addresses next.

         Plaintiff disputes Defendants' statement in Fact 3 that U.S. 70 was generally a “heavily-travelled route” between Clovis and Portales. Plaintiff contends that at the time of the police pursuit in this case, there was very little traffic on either the northbound or southbound lanes of U.S. 70. As an initial matter, the Court notes that the officers' dash-cam videos establish what anyone familiar with the major highways in the State of New Mexico knows and that is U.S. 70 is a four lane highway separated by a median. There is certainly some room for a difference of opinion as to what constitutes “heavy” traffic, since everything is relative when, for example, comparing traffic in Los Angeles or New York City to traffic in Albuquerque or Clovis. However, the dash-cam videos show that between the time Mawhorter started driving northbound in the southbound travel lanes and the time he crashed, a significant number of vehicles either passed or were forced to swerve or pull over to avoid Mawhorter's vehicle. Both officers considered the traffic to be heavy. See Doc. 26-2 (Ex. B) at 4 (“there was a lot of traffic coming southbound . . . .”); Doc. 26-3 (Ex. C) at 7 (“heavy traffic headed southbound”). By Defendants' count, approximately twenty-three other vehicles were encountered in that time period, but the Court has not confirmed that number by actual count. Because the pursuit occurred at night, the headlights of the oncoming traffic were easily visible. On viewing the dash-cam videos, the Court is left with the definite impression that traffic was considerable, if not “heavy” for most of the time during the pursuit.

         The video evidence also dispenses with Plaintiff's purported “dispute” of fact presented in paragraph (b) regarding Defendant's Fact 11. Plaintiff disputes the fact that the Chevrolet pick-up truck driving northbound in the southbound lanes, at speeds up to 90-100 miles per hour, posed a “danger to the vehicles traveling southbound” because the dash-cam videos from both officers police cruisers (Exs. 2 and 4) show that all southbound vehicles pulled safely off the roadway as the Mawhorter vehicle and the police cars approached. Plaintiff's interpretation of the video footage is unfounded, since the footage also shows that the officers were closely following Mawhorter using their emergency overhead lights and sirens to warn the public. Thus, danger to the public was mitigated because of the presence of the officers, and Defendant's Fact 11 will be considered as undisputed by the Court. Further, it is beyond credulity that one could dispute the fact that traveling against the traffic on a major four lane highway at night when multiple vehicles are present does not pose a danger to those vehicles. The Court cannot help but wonder if Plaintiff's counsel watched the same dash-cam videos that the Court watched.

         In Fact 13, Defendants state that as Mawhorter's vehicle and the pursuing officers approached the City of Clovis and the posted speed limit dropped from 65 mph to 50 mph, the Chevrolet pick-up truck continued going against oncoming traffic at speeds of about 90-100 mph with approximately thirteen oncoming, southbound vehicles being forced to swerve off the roadway to avoid being hit by the weaving pick-up truck. Plaintiff disputes this fact in paragraph (c), claiming that the dash-cam footage does not show Mawhorter's vehicle traveling at speeds of “90-to 100” mph. There is no dispute created here for two reasons. First, even at lesser speeds, the danger would still be present; and second, Plaintiff's own evidence reflects that the truck was traveling 80-90 mph (Ex. B (Doc. 26-2) at 5; Ex. 2 (Quintana Video) at 6:44:26 pm (reflecting speed of 99 mph).

         In paragraph (e), Plaintiff disputes Fact 17, claiming that the officers' statement that they were unable to attempt another PIT maneuver after Mawhorter turned west on Brady is “flatly contradicted” by Officer Quintana's statement to investigators. This is not a “dispute” at all, but merely a quibble with semantics. Defendants' Fact 17 states in part that after Mawhorter turned west onto Brady and driving in the eastbound lanes, the officers “were unable to attempt another P.I.T. maneuver” and again requested dispatch to ask a supervisor whether they should continue or discontinue, their pursuit. In his interview, Officer Quintana stated that when he saw Mawhorter “traveling eastbound . . . that's when I made the attempt to do the PIT . . . but I missed and that's when I slowly . . . began to back off . . . .” Ex. 26-3 at 8:20-9:1-5. Before Officer Quintana could make another PIT attempt, he saw Mawhorter crash into the fence. There is nothing inconsistent between Defendants' Fact 17 and Officer's Quintana's interview statements, and certainly nothing that creates a material factual dispute. An “attempt” could refer merely to the technical execution of a PIT maneuver that missed its mark, or to the inability to execute it. Regardless, it remains undisputed that within the few minutes between the second P.I.T. maneuver on U.S. 70 (stopping Mawhorter's vehicle only temporarily) and the time it crashed, the officers intended to perform a third PIT maneuver in an effort to halt Mawhorter, but were unable to do so, and before they could attempt another PIT maneuver, Mawhorter crashed the Chevrrolet pick-up truck into the metal fence. The dash-cam videos (Defts' Exs. 3 & 4) corroborate Defendants' statement and Officer Quintana's testimony. Both video tapes show Officer Quintana sidling up to Mawhorter's pick-up truck which was traveling east on westbound Brady, both vehicles were traveling at high speed, with Quintana staying close to the lane shoulder to avoid hitting oncoming traffic while looking for an opening to perform the maneuver. At the last second, however, Officer Quintana veered back off toward the shoulder again, having come close to executing the maneuver but not completing it.[3]

         In paragraphs (d) and (g), Plaintiff cites to particular statements made by Mawhorter to DPS investigators, such as the reason for Mawhorter's trip from Denver, the fact that Ms. Woods did not know the truck was stolen, that Ms. Woods was “freaking out” and thought Mawhorter was “going way too fast.” Ex. D (excerpts).[4] Defendants do not dispute what Mawhorter said after the crash, but these statements are irrelevant to what the officers knew and observed during the incident. Plaintiff also takes issue with the “suggested inference” that Ms. Woods voluntarily remained in the pick-up truck after it was rammed to a stop after the first successful PIT maneuver. Officer Quintana stated in his affidavit that when Mawhorter's vehicle came to a stop, he was able to observe that the young female passenger made no attempt to exit the truck and instead reached down as if snapping her seat belt into place. Ex. 1, 15-16.

         Plaintiff contends that it is undisputed that Ms. Woods wanted to get out of the vehicle, based on Mawhorter's interview statements. Ex. D at 11:15-16; 12:6-7. However, even viewing the facts favorably to Plaintiff, a reasonable fact finder could not make the inference that Ms. Woods wanted to exit the vehicle in light of statements made both by Officer Quintana and Mawhorter. It is undisputed that during the short time in which the truck was stopped, both officers had exited their vehicles with weapons drawn and that during this stop, neither the driver nor passenger exited, attempted to exit the vehicle, or made any gestures suggesting that they wanted to exit the vehicle. Quintana stated that during the approximately five seconds Mawhorter's truck was stopped on the north shoulder (and the video confirms this time span), he observed Mawhorter and Ms. Woods “just look at us” before the driver resumed his flight. Mawhorter also stated that Ms. Woods, not he, had been smoking marijuana while they drove; that the marijuana would be found in the glovebox and that during the flight he had asked Ms. Woods to “look up the map so I could see [where] the next town was.” Doc. 26-4 (Ex. D) at 13. Inferences must be reasonable, and here one cannot make the inferences suggested by Plaintiff. At any rate, whether or not Ms. Woods was a willing passenger is not dispositive of the substantive inquiry which considers whether the officers' conduct was excessive under the Fourteenth Amendment.

         Somewhat incredulously, Plaintiff challenges Defendants' Fact 19. In paragraph (f), Plaintiff disputes Defendants' description of the pursuit as follows, based on the officers' recollection of events:

The situation was tense, fast-moving, rapidly evolving and fraught with the danger of death or serious bodily injury to the driver and his passenger, members of the public residing along the roadways, the twenty-three or so other oncoming drivers and their passengers ...

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