Sheriff Not Liable in Woman’s Shooting Death

(CN)  – Seventeen years after a woman was shot to death by her daughter’s brother-in-law, an appeals court has upheld a lower court’s finding the sheriff is not to blame for not protecting the dead before the murder occurred.

Maria Ibanez Sarasino was shot and killed in her front yard in Kenner, Louisiana on September 27, 1999, by Miguel Rojas, who was the brother of Sarasino’s son-in-law.

Rojas had been released from jail 10 months earlier after serving three years for attempted second-degree murder.

After Rojas was paroled, he spent several months in Sarasino’s home, then he lived with his brother and sister-in-law, and finally with his sister, court documents say.

As recounted in the ruling, Sarasino helped Rojas get a job in the same restaurant where she worked as kitchen manager. But tensions between Sarasino and Rojas, and Rojas and other members of the family quickly developed.

In September 1999, Alphonse Rojas realized his handgun was missing, the ruling says, and he suspected his brother had taken it.

On September 5, 1999, Alphonse Rojas filed a report with the Kenner Police Department, stating his handgun was missing and was likely stolen by his brother, Miguel Rojas.

Two days later, on September 7, Miguel Rojas threatened to kill his brother’s family, the document says. The Sarasino family then filed a complaint with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.

The police report on file at the Jefferson Parish Police Department says the intake officer conducted a criminal history check and found that Miguel Rojas was on parole for three counts of attempted murder. The report went on to say the intake officer had attempted a “dispo check” at Roja’s sister’s house, but the “dispo proved fruitless.”

Eleven days later, on September 16, 1999, an officer from the sheriff’s department contacted James Hurston, a parole officer with the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections. According to Hurston, the officer told him of the complaint made to the sheriff’s office, and that Rojas may be armed with a handgun he took from his brother.

The next day, September 17, Sarasino also notified Roja’s parole officer of the complaint made to police, and that Rojas might be armed with a handgun. Sarasino also gave the parole officer the address of Roja’s sister – the same address where an officer from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office had conducted a fruitless “dispo check” ten days prior.

She also provided an additional address where Rojas might be found.

On September 23, an arrest warrant was issued for Roja for his alleged theft of his brother’s gun.

Four days later, on the evening of September 27, Roja’s fatally shot Sarasino with a single bullet in the head as she stood in her front yard.

Rojas then drove from the scene, and held up at the alternative address Sarasino had previously provided the police. There, Rojas engaged in a three-hour standoff with police before they finally shot him to death.

IN September 27, 2000, Sarasino’s family filed a wrongful death claim against the state, the Jefferson Parish Police Department, acting Sheriff Harry Lee and Jefferson Parish.

After years of discovery and pre-trial motions, Sheriff Newell Normand, as successor to former Sheriff Harry Lee — filed a motion for summary judgment.

Norman’s May 14, 2014, motion argued the plaintiffs could not prove the parish was negligent in failing to protect Sarasino.

On November 6, 2014, the court granted the summary judgment on the grounds the police department had immunity, and also on the premise it may not even be reasonable to use monies and manpower to protect “the needs of one family which would have had to be allocated to only them over an unknown, but most likely lengthy, amount of time due to a complaint of criminal behavior which had not yet even occurred.”

The family appealed.

Last week the Fifth Circuit sided with the lower court, finding the sheriff’s office is immune to claims of the kind brought by Sarasino’s family.

The court agreed with the lower court that plaintiffs had ignored the testimony of parole officer James Hurston that a JPSO officer had contacted and informed him of the stolen handgun as well as threats made against Sarasino’s family.

Also, the court found that Sarasino’s family offered no indication of what an acceptable timeframe between filing a report and arresting a perpetrator would be.

Further, the plaintiffs did not provide any support for their claim that the sheriff failed to “timely” arrest Rojas, the ruling said.

“In fact, plaintiffs failed to point to any evidence indicating that the [Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office] was made aware of the arrest warrant obtained by the Kenner Police Department on February 23, 1999, just four days prior to Mrs. Sarasino’s death.  Plaintiffs made no showing regarding what an appropriate time frame would have been in this particular matter, or, again, that the actions of the JPSO in conducting this investigation were not discretionary in nature,” the Fifth Circuit found.

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