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Corona v. City of Clovis

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

August 12, 2019



          Judith C. Herrera United States District Court Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants' First Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support Thereof (“Motion for Summary Judgment”) (ECF No. 41). After considering the parties' filings, the record, and the relevant law, the Court concludes that the motion for summary judgment should be granted as to Defendants' requests to dismiss Plaintiff's claim for violation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment against Defendants Aguilar and Loomis and Plaintiff's § 1983 unlawful arrest claim against Defendant Loomis. In all other respects, the Court will deny the motion.

         I. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if it could have an effect on the outcome of the lawsuit. Smothers v. Solvay Chems., Inc., 740 F.3d 530, 538 (10th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). A dispute over a material fact is “genuine” if the evidence presented could allow a rational jury to find in favor of the non-moving party. E.E.O.C. v. Horizon/CMS Healthcare Corp., 220 F.3d 1184, 1190 (10th Cir. 2000) (internal citation omitted). In considering a summary judgment motion, the court views the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draws all reasonable inferences in his or her favor. Shero v. City of Grove, 510 F.3d 1196, 1200 (10th Cir. 2007).

         A party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of showing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). When the movant does not have the burden of persuasion at trial, it can satisfy its burden at the summary judgment stage by identifying a lack of evidence on an essential element of the claim. Id. at 671. If the party seeking summary judgment satisfies its burden, the burden then shifts to the non-movant to go beyond the pleadings and set forth specific facts supported by reference to affidavits, deposition transcripts, or other admissible evidence. See id.

         The incident in this case was captured, at least in part, on the police dashcam video, submitted as “Plaintiff's Exhibit 4, ” and from Officer Aguilar's lapel camera entitled “Plaintiff's Exhibit 3.” In a case, such as this one, where there is a video recording capturing the events in question, a court should view the facts in the light depicted by the video recording. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380-81 (2007). “When opposing parties tell two different stories, one of which is blatantly contradicted by the record, so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a motion for summary judgment.” Id. at 380. Consequently, the facts set forth in the next section are drawn from the undisputed evidence; the video recording; and, for the facts not conclusively established in the video recording, those facts that are supported by admissible evidence and construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the non-moving party.

         II. Factual Background

         Around 2:15 a.m. on August 3, 2014, Officer Brent Aguilar with the Clovis Police Department conducted a traffic stop after observing a vehicle speeding through a red light in Clovis, New Mexico. See Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Undisputed Facts ¶¶ 1-2, ECF No. 1. Immediately upon approaching the stopped vehicle, Officer Aguilar instructed the driver, Teshia Lujan, to roll down the back-passenger window while he shined his flashlight into the rear driver side window. See id., Undisputed Fact ¶ 5; Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 00:17-:21. Plaintiff Jorge Corona, a passenger in the back seat of the vehicle, asked Officer Aguilar why he stopped the vehicle. Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Undisputed Fact ¶ 5; Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 00:17. In response, Officer Aguilar said he was not talking to him. Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 00:23-:24. While continuing to shine his flashlight into the rear driver side window, Officer Aguilar asked the driver for her license, registration, and insurance. Id. 00:25-:27. A few moments later, Ms. Lujan handed some papers out the window and Officer Aguilar took the paperwork from her and asked if she had her license with her. Id. at 00:46-:51.

         While Ms. Lujan searched for her license, Mr. Corona asked Officer Aguilar why he stopped them. Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Undisputed Fact ¶ 5; Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 01:09-:11. Officer Aguilar did not suspect Mr. Corona of committing a crime at that point. Tr. 47:4-11, ECF No. 54 at 39. In response to Mr. Corona's question, Officer Aguilar stated, “You're not driving, buddy. You got ID?” Id. at 1:12-:13. Mr. Corona responded, “Nah. Why you stopping us?” Id. at 01:13-15. Officer Aguilar replied while shining his flashlight in the back window, “Let me have your ID.” Id. at 01:16. Again, Mr. Corona asked why he stopped them, and Officer Aguilar once again replied, “Let me have your ID.” Id. at 01:17-18. Mr. Corona immediately asked again, “Why you stopping us?” Id. at 01:19-20. Officer Aguilar responded, “I'm gonna ask you one more time and then I'm going to place you under arrest” and asked for his Id. Id. at 01:20-22. Mr. Corona asked, “for what?” Id. at 01:23. Officer Aguilar then ordered Mr. Corona to step out of the car. Id. at 01:24. During this approximately 15-second interaction, Ms. Lujan continued to search for her license. See Id. at 01:09-:22.

         Mr. Corona got out of the car while asking again why he was stopping them. Id. at 01:25-:35. Officer Aguilar instructed him to turn around and face the car with instructions to place his hands behind his back. Id. at 01:35-:39. As Mr. Corona was being handcuffed and placed against the car, he once more asked Officer Aguilar, “why are you stopping us?” Id. at 1:36-38. Mr. Corona repeated his question and asked if he has a reason to pull them over, to which Officer Aguilar replied, “Yes, I do.” Id. at 1:38-1:48. When he asked, “for what?” Officer Aguilar told him not to worry about it. Id. 1:48-:52.

         Around the same time, Officer Travis Loomis with the Clovis Police Department arrived on scene and approached the driver's-side window of the vehicle. See Id. at 1:58-:59; Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J., Undisputed Fact ¶ 10. Upon seeing Officer Loomis, Officer Aguilar informed him that Mr. Corona had been placed under arrest for concealing Id. Pl.'s Ex. 3, 1:58-:59. In response, Mr. Corona said, “Concealing ID, for what?” and repeatedly said, “I didn't conceal ID.” Id. at 2:00-07. Mr. Corona noted, “You didn't even ask me what my name was.” Id. at 2:07-:08.

         As Officer Aguilar led Mr. Corona to the patrol car while Mr. Corona repeated that he didn't conceal ID, Officer Aguilar told him three times in a normal tone of voice, “Come on. Come on. Stop. Stop. Stop. Come on. I asked you for your ID.” Id. at 2:00-2:12. Officer Aguilar then slammed Mr. Corona down to the ground on the asphalt. See Pl.'s Ex. 4 at 3:57-4:00. Officer Aguilar commanded loudly, “Stop. Stop.” See Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 2:12-:16; Pl.'s Ex. 4 at 4:00-:01. A few moments later, Officer Aguilar informed him, “Now you are under arrest for resisting and evading too.” Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 2:22-:25.

         Following Mr. Corona's arrest, Officer Aguilar charged him with resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer, in violation of N.M.S.A. § 30-22-1, and concealing identity, in violation of N.M.S.A. § 30-22-3. See Criminal Compl., ECF No. 54 at 28-29. A Curry County Magistrate Judge found probable cause existed in the complaint. Id. at 29. The district attorney's office dismissed the concealing identity charge. See Notice of Dismissal, ECF No. 54 at 42. After a trial, the jury acquitted Mr. Corona of the only charge before it of resisting, evading, or obstructing an officer. See Verdict, ECF No. 54 at 41. Mr. Corona then brought a civil lawsuit in the Ninth Judicial District of New Mexico, subsequently removed to this Court, alleging “assault, battery, wrongful arrest, prima facie tort, intentional infliction of emotional distress, pain and suffering, negligence, damages, misuse of process and malicious abuse of process and violation of 42 U.S.C. 1983” against the City of Clovis, the Clovis Police Department, and Officers Brent Aguilar and Travis Loomis. First Am. Compl., ECF No. 1-1 at 1. In a Memorandum Opinion and Order entered contemporaneously with this opinion, the Court dismissed Plaintiff's claims for prima facie tort, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy, negligence/negligent training, and municipal liability under § 1983.

         Consequently, the claims that remain are as follows. Mr. Corona contends that Officer Aguilar's conduct exposed him to liability under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act (“NMTCA”) for assault, battery, malicious abuse of process, and false arrest. First Am. Compl. 5, ECF No. 1-1. Further, Plaintiff asserts under the NMTCA a cause of action for malicious abuse of process against Officer Loomis. See Id. Mr. Corona has also articulated a claim for violating the NMTCA against the Clovis Police Department and the City of Clovis, seeking to impute liability for Officers Aguilar and Loomis' conduct under the doctrine of respondeat superior. See Pl.'s Resp. to Mot. for Partial J. on the Pleadings 3, ECF No. 55 (citing Paragraph 48 of the First Amended Complaint and Weinstein v. City of Santa Fe ex rel. Santa Fe Police Department, 1996-NMSC-021, ¶ 14, 121 N.M. 646). Finally, Plaintiff asserts § 1983 claims against Officers Aguilar and Loomis for unlawful arrest under the Fourth Amendment and unlawful assault without justification and due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. See First Am. Compl. 8, ECF No. 1-1.

         Defendants have moved for partial summary judgment and ask the Court to dismiss the following claims: the § 1983 claims alleging violations of Mr. Corona's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against Officers Aguilar and Loomis, see Def.'s Mot. for Summ. J. 5-19, ECF No. 41, and the malicious abuse of process claims against each Defendant, id. at 19-20.[1]

         III. Analysis

         A. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims Against Officers Aguilar and Loomis

          1. “[A]ssault[] … without justification” in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment

         Defendants challenge Mr. Corona's claim that Officers Aguilar and Loomis violated § 1983 by assaulting Mr. Corona “under color of state law, without justification and due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” First Am. Compl. ¶ 58, ECF No. 1-1. Defendants argue that an assault does not amount to a substantive due process claim and that the Fourth Amendment, not the Fourteenth Amendment, provides the constitutional foundations for false arrest and excessive force claims. See Def.'s Mot. 18-19, ECF No. 41. Defendants thus ask for summary judgment on the Fourteenth Amendment assault claim.

         Plaintiff argues that the basis for his allegations arise from the assault that took place before and while he was in custody and is a violation of substantive due process. Pl.'s Resp. 12, ECF No. 54. In support, Mr. Corona cites Bell v. Wolfish, a United States Supreme Court decision discussing the contours of a pretrial detainee's right to assert a constitutional violation based on the conditions of his confinement while detained pending trial. 441 U.S. 520 (1979). In particular, Mr. Corona cites to a section in Bell which analyzes whether a detainee's conditions of confinement amount to “punishment, ” thus triggering a detainee's constitutional right to be free from punitive measures prior to an adjudication of guilt. Bell, 441 U.S. at 535-37.

         The Supreme Court, however, has rejected the argument that an excessive force claim arising during an arrest may be brought under the Due Process Clause. In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court held, “all claims that law enforcement officers have used excessive force-deadly or not-in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other ‘seizure' of a free citizen should be analyzed under the Fourth Amendment and its ‘reasonableness' standard, rather than under a ‘substantive due process' approach.” 490 U.S. 386, 395 (1989) (emphasis in original). The Graham court expressly noted that § 1983 claims alleging the excessive use of force during an arrest proceeding are not governed by the Fourteenth Amendment's substantive due process standard. Id. The Supreme Court explained, citing Bell v. Wolfish, that the Due Process Clause protects a pretrial detainee from the use of excessive force that amounts to punishment, but it made clear that the Fourth Amendment applies during an arrest. Id. at n.10.

         Although Plaintiff relied on the incorrect constitutional provision in Paragraph 58, his factual allegations and legal assertions reasonably advised Defendants that he was alleging an excessive force claim in violation of the Constitution. Although he used the phrase “assaulting … without justification, ” instead of excessive force, Paragraph 56 of the Section 1983 portion of his complaint incorporated the prior paragraphs. First Am. Compl. ¶ 56, ECF No. 1-1. Earlier in the complaint, Plaintiff alleged he was slammed facedown into the asphalt without warning while he was handcuffed with his arms behind his back and totally defenseless, id. ¶ 21, even though Plaintiff had not attempted to pull away from Officer Aguilar or thrust his shoulder aggressively, see Id. ¶ 22. He asserted that Officer Aguilar's use of force fractured his cheekbone and caused other injuries, see Id. ¶ 21, and the amount of force used was likely to cause serious and painful injuries including great bodily harm, id. ¶ 24.

         To state an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment, the plaintiff must show that (1) a “seizure” occurred and (2) the seizure was “unreasonable.” Bella v. Chamberlain, 24 F.3d 1251, 1255 (10th Cir. 1994) (quoting Brower v. County of Inyo, 489 U.S. 593 (1989)). Despite not using the express term “excessive force, ” the facts and all reasonable inferences derived therefrom gave Defendants notice that Plaintiff was asserting an unreasonable seizure based on an excessive force theory as well as an unlawful arrest theory. The Court will therefore construe Plaintiff's § 1983 assault without justification claim as an excessive force claim under the Fourth Amendment. Defendants' summary judgment motion does not address the merits of Plaintiff's constitutional excessive force claim ...

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