Santa Fe Police Department Accused of Wrongful Death

December 1st, 2017 | by RON BELL

Santa Fe Police Department Accused of Wrongful Death

Four months after Santa Fe police fatally shot a mentally disabled 24-year-old man, his estate has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city. Anthony Benavidez was reportedly shot 16 times by one police officer after they tore out an apartment window to arrest him, and then he was shot a 17th time by a second officer.

His estate is alleging that deadly force was not necessary, and in fact was wrongful.

What is a Wrongful Death?

Whether any death is “right” or “wrong” is an age-old debate. However, a wrongful death lawsuit is not a moral debate about death. Instead, in legal terms, it is essentially a personal injury lawsuit that the victim cannot bring themselves. It is presented by the estate of the deceased who allege that the death was avoidable and therefore wrong.

In the New Mexico Statutes, section 41-2-1, a wrongful death is defined as a death caused by “the wrongful act, neglect or default of another.”  

In the case of Mr. Benavidez, his family is alleging that police acted with excessive force, had other options at their disposal, and that the facts of the case are additionally suspect. A wrongful death lawsuit also allows the estate to seek financial damages if they can prove the defendant was liable for the death. The money will go to the immediate family which the law says must be “a spouse, child, father, mother, brother, sister or child or children of the deceased”.


Proving the Case

The Albuquerque Journal reported the case back in July when the shooting happened, and Mr. Benavidezes’ legal team said then that they were working on a case but would be doing their due diligence before filing a claim.

This is an important step in this sort of case because the burden of proof lies solely on the plaintiff, which is the Benavidez estate in this case. If it cannot be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the death was wrongful and who is liable for those damages, the case is lost.

For the Benavidez estate, the lawsuit claims “special units such as the SWAT team are deployed ‘recklessly,’ that there’s a disconnect between supervising officers and those in the field, and that officers antagonize mentally disabled suspects instead of getting them the help they need,” reports the Journal.


Determining the Liable Party

Law Enforcement Officers, even though their job may involve the use of deadly force when necessary, are not immune to wrongful death claims. In fact, the New Mexico State’s section 41-4-12 lists wrongful death along with a number of other things that law enforcement officers can be held liable for such as slander, unlawful imprisonment and personal injury.

However, the estate isn’t suing the police department or even the officers involved. They are instead going after their employers – the City of Santa Fe alone – saying it has “long failed to adequately hire, train and oversee its officers.”

“The lawsuit says that state law requires officers to receive 40 hours of crisis negotiation training, but only 67 of 167 Santa Fe police officers have received the training. It asks the court to require all SFPD officers to undergo training to recognize the signs of mental disability and illness and how to communicate effectively with those inflicted, SFPD to develop protocols for its crisis intervention and special operations units, and for the city to provide screening, assessment and intake services within 72 hours of contact with homeless or mentally ill people, among other demands,” reports the Journal.


The Facts So Far

The events surrounding the shooting are also in question. Aside from the choice to use deadly force, the lawsuit alleges that tampering with evidence was even involved.

The Journal reported that when officers arrived at the apartment complex in July 2017, Mr. Benavidez had allegedly broken into the apartment the day before. Noting his mental state, they brought him to the hospital. He returned the next day to the complex and allegedly stabbed a caseworker that was on the scene to help him. SWAT was sent in.

However, from here it gets murky.

The body camera of the officer who fired 16 bullets at Mr. Benavidez stopped recording moments before the shooting. The lawsuit alleges he turned it off intentionally. Additionally, the Journal reports that the complaint says “four mental health professionals also were on hand with a police crisis team awaiting the arrival of a cell phone to begin negotiations with Benavidez”, but officers moved in instead.

Police also acknowledged that Mr. Benavidez had commonly caused problems and that before the shooting he had thrown “homemade explosives” at police that failed to go off.


What the Defendant Will Do

For the City, the burden of proof is with the Benavidez estate. However, the city will seek to refute the claims of the Benavidez estate that officers acted wrongly, were not reckless, and that the city is not liable for damages following his death.


If Damages Are Awarded

If the estate can prove the city is liable, then the jury may decide to impose financial requirements on the city to the family. In New Mexico, these can include:

  • Funeral costs
  • loss of companionship of the deceased family member
  • mental anguish based on the death of a deceased family member
  • financial contributions to the family by the deceased
  • loss of inheritance
  • pain and suffering the deceased endured before death

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