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Hernandez v. Parker

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 7, 2018

ELSA HERNANDEZ, as personal representative of the wrongful death estate of Irisema Hernandez, deceased, Plaintiff,



         On August 31, 2016, Irisema Hernandez died when the white Lincoln Town Car Eduardo Lopez was driving and in which she was a passenger in crashed into a tree. Lopez was being pursued in a high-speed chase throughout areas in and around Portales, New Mexico by Defendant Malin Parker, the Sheriff of Roosevelt County, in an unmarked truck. In the final moments of the chase-at least as Lopez describes it-Sheriff Parker attempted a PIT maneuver, bumping the back of the Lincoln with his truck and causing Lopez to lose control of and crash the sedan. Hernandez's Estate subsequently commenced this action seeking compensation from Parker, inter alia, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for alleged deprivations of Hernandez's rights under the Fourth and Fourteen Amendments as well as various state law theories. Defendants now move for summary judgment on all claims. (Doc. 34). As is relevant here, Sheriff Parker asserts entitlement to qualified immunity on the Estate's federal claims. The Estate disagrees and argues a genuine dispute of material fact exists as to reasonableness of the pursuit, its termination, and whether the chase was so egregious as to shock the conscience. With the consent of the parties to conduct dispositive proceedings, see 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the Court has considered the parties' submissions and the record on summary judgment. Having done so, the Court determines that Sheriff Parker is entitled to qualified immunity on the Estate's federal law claims and declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state-law causes.


         On August 31, 2016, Sheriff Parker and Lieutenant Javier Sanchez of the Roosevelt County Sheriff's Department were on patrol in and around Portales, New Mexico. (Doc. 40-6, at 5). They were in Sheriff Parker's patrol vehicle, an unmarked, white Chevy extended-cab pickup truck equipped with internal lights and sirens. (Doc. 40-6, at 4; 40-7, at 12-13). That day, Sheriff Parker wore a black hoodie. (Doc. 40-5, at 3). Lieutenant Sanchez was clad in full Sheriff's Department uniform. (Id.).

         At 11:55 a.m., Sheriff Parker observed a white Lincoln town car he recognized as belonging to Hernandez, whom Sheriff Parker knew, at the Classic American Economy Inn. (Doc. 40-6). Sheriff Parker believed that Hernandez was on house-arrest at the time because the Sheriff was in court at the time the conditions of release were imposed restricting Hernandez's movements. (Doc. 45-6, at 5). Sheriff Parker also saw Lopez, whom Sheriff Parker did not know, and Hernandez approaching the sedan. (Doc. 40-6, at 5). After passing the motel, Sheriff Parker turned the truck around to contact Hernandez. (Doc. 40-6, at 5). When Sheriff Parker reached the motel, he parked his truck in front of Hernandez's Lincoln, boxing it in. (Doc. 40-6, at 5).

         By the time Sheriff Parker and Lieutenant Sanchez got out of the vehicle, Hernandez was in the passenger side of the Lincoln; Lopez sat in the driver's seat. (Doc. 34-5; Doc. 40-6, at 5). Lopez was frantically trying to and did start the sedan. (Doc. 40-6, at 5). Hernandez appeared to be reaching for the floor board (Doc. 40-6, at 5). Both Sheriff Parker and Lieutenant Sanchez had their guns drawn. (Doc. 34-1, at 4). Sheriff Parker was at the driver side of the Hernandez's vehicle, and Lieutenant Sanchez was near the passenger side. (Doc. 40-6, at 5-6). Neither Sheriff Parker nor Lieutenant Sanchez identified himself as a law enforcement officer nor gave commands, and Sheriff Parker stood directly in front of the Lincoln and pointed his gun at Lopez. (Doc. 40-6, at 6; 40-8, at 2)

         The Lincoln backed up to maneuver around the Sheriff Parker's truck, nearly hitting the exterior of the motel. (Doc. 34-5, at 2; Doc. 40-6, at 6). Lopez then drove forward, struck Sheriff Parker, left the motel, headed East on U.S. 70. (Doc. 40-6, 6-7; 40-7, at 11). After Sheriff Parker composed himself, he and Lieutenant Sanchez gave chase in the pickup. (Doc. 40-6, 5-10; 40-7, at 11-12). They engaged the emergency equipment, although the light bar was not visible from the side. (Doc. 34-1, at 7, 34-5, at 2). Lopez, however, heard only the siren. (Doc. 40-8, at 2).

         From Highway 70, Lopez made a left on University Avenue and from University, a right turn onto North Avenue O. (Doc. 34-1, at 6-7; Doc. 40-6, 5-10). Lopez ran a stop sign at the intersection of North O and West Lime and another stop sign at North O and New Mexico Highway 236, where Lopez almost collided with another vehicle. (Doc. 34-1, at 6-7, 11; Doc. 40-6, 5-10). Lopez turned left on New Mexico Highway 236 and turned south on Roosevelt Road T. (Doc. 34-1, at 6-7, 11). At the intersection of Road T and New Mexico Highway 267, Lopez ran another stop sign as he turned right onto Highway 267. (Doc. 34-1, at 6-7, 11; Doc. 40-6, 5-10).

         Between the intersections of Roads T and U on Highway 267, Sheriff Parker hit the Lincoln with his truck at a high rate of speed. (Doc. 34-8, at 2-3; Doc. 40-2, at 2-4; 40-4, at 2-4, 7-8). Lopez, who later described the impact as a “PIT maneuver, ” lost control of the vehicle, slid into an adjacent bar ditch, and hit a tree. (Doc. 34-8, at 2-3; Doc. 40-2, at 2-4; 40-4, at 2-4, 7-8; 40-8, at 2-3). Hernandez died as a result of injuries sustained during the automobile crash. (Doc. 34-8, at 2-3). During the chase, speeds exceeded 100 miles per hour. (Doc. 40-4, at 2). The pursuit took place in residential areas and near a university and schools while school was in session. (Doc. 40-6, at 15). At the time of the collision, there were no other vehicles in front of the town car. (40-8, at 2-3).

         On December 12, 2017, Hernandez's Estate commenced this action. (Doc. 1). In its six-count complaint, the Estate alleges: (1) Sheriff Parker was negligent under New Mexico law in operating his unmarked patrol vehicle; (2) Sheriff Parker committed aggravated assault and battery under New Mexico law by engaging in the high-speed chase resulting in Hernandez's death; (3) the County is vicariously liable for Sheriff Parker's wrongful actions; (4) Hernandez's death deprived of her children of consortium; (5) Sheriff Parker unlawfully seized Hernandez contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment; and (6) Sheriff Parker engaged in excessive force in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. (Doc. 1). Defendants now move for summary judgment on the state-law claims and Sheriff Parker for qualified immunity on Counts V an VI. (Doc. 34).


         Qualified immunity entitles a law enforcement officer to avoid trial and the other burdens of litigation arising from the performance of his or her discretionary functions. See Quinn v. Young, 780 F.3d 998 (10th Cir. 2015). To give effect to the doctrine, the Court views the parties' respective burdens on summary judgment differently. See Clark v. Edmunds, 513 F.3d 1219, 1222 (10th Cir. 2008); Price-Cornelison v. Brooks, 524 F.3d 1103, 1108 (10th Cir. 2008). To defeat qualified immunity on summary judgment, the plaintiff must satisfy “a strict two-part test” by establishing with record evidence (1) “the defendant's actions violated a constitutional . . . right” and (2) that right was “clearly established at the time of the conduct at issue.” Clark, 513 F.3d at 1222 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). The Court may address the two prongs in whatever order it chooses “in light of the circumstances in the particular case at hand.” Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009). If a plaintiff satisfies the two-part test, then- and only then-does the law enforcement officer bear his or her traditional burden to show the absence of a triable issue of fact. See Clark, 513 F.3d at 1222.


         In a Section 1983 case, the Court's first task is to “identify[] the specific constitutional right allegedly infringed by the challenged application of force.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 394 (1989). “Where . . . the excessive force claim arises in the context of an arrest or investigatory stop of a free citizen, it is most properly characterized as one invoking the protections of the Fourth Amendment . . . against unreasonable . . . seizures[.]” Id. (citation omitted). In Graham, the Supreme Court held that all excessive-force claims stemming from “an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure' . . . [must] be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its ‘reasonableness' standard, rather than under a ‘substantive due process' approach.” Id. at 395. The reason, the Supreme Court said, is the Fourth Amendment “provides an explicit textual source of constitutional protection against this sort of physically intrusive governmental conduct, ” while the Fourteenth Amendment more generally prohibits arbitrary and abusive government conduct. Id.

         In this case, the Estate's complaint alleges both, mutually exclusive theories of recovery. Count V seeks recovery for Hernandez's death resulting from Sheriff Parker's conscience-shocking high-speed pursuit while Count VI alleges that Sheriff Parker was objectively unreasonable in engaging in a dangerous high-speed police pursuit. As explained above, however, the former, substantive due process theory is only viable under ...

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