(CN) - A New Mexico officer who fatally shot a man in the neck during an alleged domestic dispute did not have probable cause to use deadly force, the 10th Circuit ruled.
Glen Causey had called the Doña Ana County Sheriff's Department in July 2007 after a dispute with his adult son, Megan. He told the dispatcher that his son had mental health issues and that there were two firearms at the residence.
Deputy Carlos Montoya pulled up to Causey's home and jumped out his car, weapon drawn, according to the ruling.
He found a man behind the wheel of a van, which appeared to be stuck on a pile of rocks in the driveway. The van's driver was later identified as Megan Dylan Causey. A child sat in the passenger seat.
Montoya was standing anywhere from "one and 15 feet in front of the van," according to differing accounts. It was dark; Montoya had dropped his flashlight, and the van's headlights glared in his face.
He stood in front of the van as the other officer approached from the driver's side, yelling for Megan to exit the van. When the van lurched forward about a foot, Montoya fired a single shot, hitting Megan in the neck. Megan died a short time later.
The Zia Trust Company sued Montoya and Doña Ana County on behalf of Megan's minor son, claiming Montoya's use of excessive force violated the Fourth Amendment.
The district court rejected Montoya's qualified immunity claim, saying there were facts in dispute that made the shooting appear unreasonable.
The Denver-based appeals court agreed, noting that Montoya made several disputable moves that night that could be viewed as excessive force.
"Officer Montoya exited his vehicle with his weapon already drawn and proceeded to a position in front of Megan's van without identifying himself as a police officer or, indeed, saying anything at all," Judge Monroe McKay wrote the three-judge panel. "It is unclear, at least under the plaintiffs' alleged facts, whether Megan even knew that Office Montoya was a police officer."
Also, there is "some support in the record" that the van was "obviously" stuck on a retaining wall, and that it jumped forward less than a foot before Montoya fired.
"We cannot say that a van 15 feet away, which according to the plaintiffs was clearly stuck on a pile of rocks, gave Officer Montoya probable cause to believe that there was a threat of serious physical harm to himself or others," McKay wrote.
"Accordingly, reading the record in the light favorable to the plaintiffs, it is not clear that Megan manifested an intent to harm Officer Montoya or anyone else at the scene. Our analysis of course only accounts for the plaintiffs' version of events, a version which a jury may later reject. However, under this version we agree with the district court that the plaintiffs have met their burden of showing a constitutional violation."
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