LAREDO, Texas (CN) – Laredo police hid evidence for months that its officer caused a wreck that hospitalized a man, arrested the man’s attorney on a bogus charge at the hospital, and arrested the victim’s family at gunpoint, also on bogus charges, the attorney claims in two lawsuits.
A Webb County jury decided last week that Laredo police Officer Gustavo Guerra crashed his police motorcycle into Victor Ramos’ Suzuki bike, then fled at 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 15, 2015 in Laredo.
The verdict brought a close to a lawsuit Ramos filed against Laredo in December 2015.
The jury ordered the city to pay Ramos $30,000 for medical bills and $2,000 for lost wages. The wreck sent him to an emergency room with a concussion and scrapes and contusions on his left arm and foot.
Ramos’ attorney Marcel Notzon said it took him months to track down a photo of the officer’s damaged motorcycle, which the police force had hidden from him and his client.
Notzon said in an interview that the jury verdict, plus one of the most “egregious” cases of police misconduct he’s seen in his 29-year legal career, inspired him to file two federal lawsuits Tuesday, against Laredo, its police department, Guerra and two other Laredo policemen.
Laredo, pop. 248,000, is on the Mexican border, across the Rio Grande from Nuevo Laredo. It is Webb County’s seat.
Ramos went home after the wreck and his family took him to the emergency room of Doctor’s Hospital of Laredo. Then Ramos’ in-laws found out a Laredo policeman had crashed into him.
“The father-in-law called 911, and obviously he was upset that they had run over his son. He said to the police, ‘Who do you guys think ya’ll are? Just because ya’ll carry guns you think you can do whatever you want. Well, we the public, we have guns also,’” Notzon said in an interview.
Notzon said Laredo police felt threatened by the statement and pointed their guns at the father-in-law’s head while handcuffing him, which scared the man’s son, who asked the police, “Hey, what are you doing to my dad? What are you doing to my dad?”
Officers grabbed the 13-year-old boy, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him, Notzon said.
“There was no arrest warrant for him, there was no charge, and the police said, ‘Oh, well, we were just trying, because he was excited, we were just trying to detain him for our safety.’ Then, OK, if that’s the case, why didn’t you release him to his mother?” Notzon said.
“You took him to juvenile jail at 2 a.m.? This was traumatic for the kid, never been arrested before.”
Laredo interim city attorney Kristina Hale did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuits.
Notzon says in his lawsuit that Ramos’ mother-in-law called him and told him to come to the hospital to “protect their rights” and that her son had been run over by a Laredo policeman.
Notzon says he spoke at the hospital to Sgt. Roberto Garcia, a defendant in his lawsuit, and that Garcia bristled at his suggestion that the police department needed to investigate the crash.
“Plaintiff was not allowed to speak to Ramos, and after plaintiff asked what they were doing to investigate who caused the collision, plaintiff was placed under arrest by Sergeant Garcia. … Later plaintiff was charged with criminal trespassing. Those charges were eventually dropped,” Notzon says in his complaint.
The Webb County District Attorney’s Office also dropped the charges against Ramos’ father-in-law and brother-in-law.
Notzon said in the interview that the police department denied that Guerra had caused the wreck and stonewalled his request to inspect its fleet of motorcycles. Then it tried to throw him off the trail by blaming the Webb County Sheriff’s Department, which had two motorcycles the same model as the Laredo Police Department’s bikes.
“The sheriff’s department had two Victory motorcycles,” Notzon said in the interview. “They made their vehicles available for inspection under their supervision. One of them was out of state being repaired for two months before this incident occurred, and the other one had no damage, none whatsoever.”
Determined to find evidence, Notzon caught a break when a homeowner let him and his investigator review surveillance footage, which showed a Laredo police motorcycle in the area the night of the wreck.
Notzon got his smoking gun through an open records request, when former Laredo city attorney Raul Casso sent him a photo of a scratched Laredo Police motorcycle that confirmed Ramos’ version of events.
“If I never got that, we never would have had a case,” Notzon said.
He seeks punitive damages for civil rights violations under Texas and federal law.
In addition to the city, its police department and Sgt. Garcia, he sued Laredo Regional Medical Center dba Doctor’s Hospital of Laredo, claiming in his lawsuit it “participated in the conspiracy by allowing a false police report to be filed” against him, an accusation he declined to elucidate in the interview.
Ramos, his mother-in-law and now 15-year-old brother-in-law are the plaintiffs in the other lawsuit Notzon filed Tuesday.
They also sued the city and police department. Their suit differs from Notzon’s in that they sued Guerra and Lt. Ricardo Gonzalez, LPD’s chief of internal affairs, who they claim is most to blame for obstructing the investigation.
“Gonzalez instructed investigating officers not to interview defendant Gustavo Guerra Jr., or any other Laredo police officer in connection with plaintiff Ramos’ claims,” the family’s lawsuit states.
Ramos and in his in-laws seek punitive damages for civil rights violations, false imprisonment and conspiracy, lost wages and medical expenses.
Notzon said the police department “crossed the line” with the hit-and-run, by arresting him and Ramos’ in-laws, and the cover-up, and that he filed the lawsuits in part to hold the LPD accountable in the court of public opinion.
“Don’t get me wrong: There’s numerous excellent dedicated police officers that are here to protect our community, but they’re supposed to be trained appropriately to respond to situations, whether it’s a hit-and-run involving one of their own, a sexual assault involving one of their own. You just can’t sweep it under the rug,” Notzon said.