BROWNSVILLE, Texas (CN) – Five police officers will face trial over their conduct in the lethal shooting of a mentally ill Brownsville man during a showdown that included 19 SWAT team members, a federal magistrate judge ruled.
After two people were stabbed one November 2008 evening in Brownsville, police apprehended one of the prime suspects but were still trying to locate the second, Jaime Sanchez.
An ultimately bad tip led them to the home of Ricardo Moreno, but Moreno’s daughters say police dispatch should not have seriously considered the information, which came from an anonymous, drunken caller. Moreover, the tip identified a man named “Luis,” not Jaime.
Police dispatcher Ida Villarreal relayed a version of the unverified tip anyway, telling officers that Sanchez had been spotted entering Moreno’s address.
Though neighbors tried to tell police that Moreno was a mentally ill loner and that they should leave the resident alone because he was not likely involved with Sanchez, a group of officers kicked Moreno’s door down. The officers say they exited the house after Moreno lunged at them with a knife, but Moreno’s daughters say there was no knife and he simply ushered the officers out of his home, telling them that “his house was not the post office and just to drop off the mail.”
Lt. Adrian Mascorro then made holes in Moreno’s door and shot three cans of pepper spray into the house. Neighbors laughed as Moreno blew the pepper spray back outside with the aid of a fan and tossed coffee toward an officer standing on the porch.
But the comical situation quickly escalated as Mascorro summoned a tactical team led by Sgt. Troy Arnold, who brought in 19 SWAT team members and a BearCat armored vehicle.
The growing crowd of officers then lobbed more pepper spray into Moreno’s home, shut off his water and examined the interior of the home with a pole camera.
A dozen SWAT team members entered the home, found Moreno sitting on his bed and began firing. The officers say Moreno was holding a knife and that they shot him six times in the torso after he disregarded their calls to drop the knife and held onto it even after they shot him with six less-than-lethal rounds.
Moreno’s daughters sued the city and various city employees in their individual and official capacities, naming police dispatcher Villarreal, Lt. Mascorro, Sgt. Raul Rodriguez, Sgt. Arnold, Lt. James Paschall and Chief Carlos Garcia. They claimed violation of their father’s Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. They also sued for wrongful death, negligence and assault.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Felix Recio upheld most of the claims against the officers in a 43-page order on Friday.
“A man his [sic] died for seemingly avoidable reasons,” Recio wrote. “Where responsibility lies for avoiding such finality is the true essence of this case.”
“The court is mindful that it should ‘not second guess the officer on the beat who must make split second decisions in life-or-death situations,'” he added. “But the undisputed evidence in this case shows that the grand majority of the decisions made during this several-hour episode were never made in the heat of the moment and only after the deliberation of the city of Brownsville’s highest ranking police officers. It will now be the duty of citizens of this community to undertake an examination of the evidence in a quest for recreating the events described by so many into a single, cogent story line to aid the court in future determinations.”
Recio dismissed the city of Brownsville and Villarreal as defendants, though he noted the police dispatcher’s actions on the day of Moreno’s death “are far from praise.”
This decision coupled with an earlier order Recio issued last year leaves the Moreno sisters with six remaining claims against the defendant officers.
Those officers filed for an interlocutory appeal on Monday, asking the 5th Circuit to reconsider their motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity.