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Wrongful Death Estate of Gonzalez v. Board of County Commissioners of County of Bernalillo

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 29, 2019

WRONGFUL DEATH ESTATE OF MIGUEL GONZALEZ, by and through Wrongful Death Estate Personal Representative Joanna Rodríguez, JOANNA RODRIGUEZ, on her own behalf and as Mother and Next Friend of ME Gonzalez, a minor child, DJ Gonzalez, a minor child, and AX Gonzales, a minor child, Plaintiffs,
BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF THE COUNTY OF BERNALILLO, NEW MEXICO, MANUEL GONZALES, III, Sheriff of Bernalillo County, CHARLES COGGINS, a Deputy Sheriff of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, and JOHN DOES 1 through 7, Deputy Sheriffs Deputy Sheriffs of the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department, Individually and in their Official Capacities, Defendants.


         This matter comes before the Court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment for Spoliation of Evidence (Spoliation Motion), filed November 2, 2018 (Doc. 84); Defendants Board of County Commissioners of the County of Bernalillo, Manuel Gonzales III, and Deputy Charles Coggins' (County Defendants) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment No. I: Dismissal of the Estate's Claim for Excessive Force in Count I (QI Motion), filed November 29, 2018 (Doc. 91); and County Defendants' Daubert Motion to Limit and Exclude Certain Testimony by Brian McDonald, Ph.D. (Motion to Exclude), filed December 12, 2018 (Doc. 96). Plaintiffs filed a response to the QI Motion on January 6, 2019, a response to the Motion to Exclude on January 7, 2019, and did not file a reply in support of their Spoliation Motion. (Docs. 94, 99, and 103). County Defendants filed a response to Plaintiffs' Spoliation Motion on November 14, 2018, and replies in support of their QI Motion and Motion to Exclude on January 21, 2019. (Docs. 87, 108, and 112). Having reviewed the Motions, the accompanying briefs, and the applicable law, the Count grants the County Defendants' QI Motion, denies Plaintiffs' Spoliation Motion, and denies as moot the County Defendants' Motion to Exclude.

         I. Background and Procedural History[1]

         Around 1:00 a.m. on July 4, 2017, Deputy Charles Coggins (Coggins) was dispatched to a car wash based on a report that some individuals were loitering. Deputy Skartwed also responded, but did not remain at the car wash. Coggins was in a marked Bernalillo County Sherriff's Office (BCSO) vehicle. At the car wash, Coggins noticed a red Monte Carlo sedan and observed the driver[2] make a quick or furtive motion. Coggins ran the Monte Carlo's license plate through a database which reported the license plate to be stolen.

         Coggins lost sight of the Monte Carlo at some time before leaving the car wash, but Deputy Skartwed observed the Monte Carlo and radioed back the vehicle's location. Coggins and Deputy Skartwed, in separate vehicles, proceeded to follow the Monte Carle into a neighborhood. At a “T” intersection, Deputy Skartwed went one direction and Coggins went the other.

         As Coggins drove, he noticed a vehicle headed toward him. Coggins activated his spotlight to illuminate the vehicle and saw that it was the red Monte Carlo. Coggins identified the driver's physical characteristics over the radio. The Monte Carlo accelerated toward Coggins' vehicle and passed him, driving in the oncoming traffic lane. Coggins made a U-turn, engaged his emergency lights, and followed the Monte Carlo. The Monte Carlo did not yield to the emergency lights and came to a stop only after running over a curb.

         The driver, Gonzalez, got out of the Monte Carlo and ran south toward a house. Coggins gave chase. Coggins attempted to activate his radio during the chase five times to update dispatch and Deputy Skartwed on his location, but he was unable to activate the radio. Coggins heard Gonzalez yelling something indistinct as Gonzalez ran toward the residence. Gonzalez continued toward the side yard of the house and jumped a gate leading to the backyard. Coggins continued to pursue Gonzalez and also jumped the gate. Coggins testified at his deposition that he heard Gonzalez say “get back or I'll shoot.” Deputy Skartwed was nearby, but did not hear this alleged statement.

         When Coggins came to a stop in the backyard, Gonzalez stood near a cinderblock wall and was “bladed” (i.e., at ¶ 90-degree angle) toward Coggins. Gonzalez “punched out” his right arm - meaning that he fully extended his arm as if aiming a gun - toward Coggins. Gonzalez was holding a dark object in his hand. Coggins believed the dark object was a firearm, based on Gonzalez's body position and statements. Based on all of these factors, Coggins believed Gonzalez was preparing to shoot him.

         Coggins fired four shots, striking Gonzalez four times. Deputy Skartwed arrived in the backyard after the shots were fired. Gonzalez died on scene from his injuries. Deputy Skartwed left Coggins unattended with Gonzalez's body on several occasions. Investigating officers recovered a holstered handgun, identified by Gonzalez's children as the one he regularly carried in his waistband.

         In 2017, BCSO had a code of ethics, rules, and procedures in effect. Officers wore tape recorders (belt tapes) and were required to activate these tapes during or in anticipation of traffic stops and/or situations involving resisting, evading, or obstructing an arrest. Use of the belt tape is mandatory. BCSO further required officers to preserve and collect physical and testimonial evidence for courtroom presentation, though not everything on scene that contains blood must be collected as evidence.

         In the case of an officer-involved shooting, BCSO policy mandates videotaped documentation of the scene. This could and should have been done after the Gonzalez shooting, but it was not.

         Detective James Fredrickson, the lead investigating officer, personally made the decision not to collect or preserve the cinderblocks on scene, and determined that preservation or testing of the cinderblocks would not have assisted in the investigation. Gonzalez's handgun, recovered from atop a cinderblock, did not have any blood on it.

         Joanna Rodriguez (Rodriguez), as personal representative of Gonzalez's estate, brought this case against Coggins and the other County Defendants, alleging Coggins violated Gonzalez's Fourth Amendment right to be free from the use of excessive force.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine dispute as to a material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “When applying this standard, [the Court] view[s] the evidence and draw[s] reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Scull v. New Mexico, 236 F.3d 588, 595 (10th Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). The movant bears the initial burden of showing the absence of a genuine issue of material fact, then the burden shifts to the non-movant to provide evidence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986); Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991). Evidence presented need not be in admissible form, but must be capable of presentation in admissible form. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(2). A fact is “material” if, under the governing law, it could influence the outcome of the lawsuit, and “genuine” if a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-movant. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Hardy v. S.F. Phosphates Ltd. Co., 185 F.3d 1076, 1079 (10th Cir. 1999); Kaul v. Stephan, 83 F.3d 1208, 1212 (10th Cir. 1996) (citation omitted). A party cannot avoid summary judgment simply by resting upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings. Bacchus Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d at 891.

         III. Discussion

         Rodriguez moves for summary judgment in her favor as a sanction for the County Defendants' and other member of the BCSO's failure to preserve evidence after the shooting. In support of this argument, Rodriguez fairly argues that a party must preserve evidence that may be relevant to future litigation, and that the County Defendants' failures were ...

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