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Tenth Circuit Orders Foreseeability Jury Determination for Detention by New Mexico DOC Employees

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s ruling that state corrections employees could be held liable only for their own initial 2- to 3-minute detention of two suspects, and not for further detention that occurred after the suspects were transferred to police custody.

New Mexico Corrections Department employees Gary Carson and Don Mangin were patrolling a high-crime neighborhood with Rio Rancho police officers as part of a task force when they observed Phillip Martinez, Ricardo Sarmiento and a third man outside an apartment building.

When the officers turned on their emergency lights, the third man fled and one of the police officers chased after him. Carson and Mangin drew their weapons and forced Martinez and Sarmiento to the ground, then cuffed and searched them.

Still cuffed, Martinez and Sarmiento were transferred to the custody of other Rio Rancho police officers several minutes later. They were arrested, booked and detained; Sarmiento was held for five hours and Martinez for twelve hours.

Martinez and Sarmiento filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit in federal court against Carson, Mangin and several Rio Rancho defendants, alleging unlawful seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Denying the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, the district court “held that the pertinent question for the jury to decide was whether Defendants had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity when they detained Plaintiffs – if so, the brief seizure was warranted as an investigative detention responsive to officer safety concerns; if not, it was an illegal seizure.” The court also held that Carson and Mangin “could only be held liable for their own alleged unlawful conduct, not for the actions of the Rio Rancho officers.” The Rio Rancho defendants settled before trial for $85,000.

At trial, a federal jury found that Mangin and Carson lacked reasonable suspicion to justify the initial seizure; Martinez and Sarmiento were each awarded $2,500 in compensatory damages and $2,500 in punitive damages. The district court subsequently awarded attorney fees and costs in the total amount of $116,104.54.

On cross-appeals, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s order limiting the defendants’ liability to only the first few minutes of detention. The appellate court held that a reasonable jury could find the initial illegal detention was a proximate cause of Martinez and Sarmiento’s longer detention by Rio Rancho police officers.

“The extent to which Defendants can be held liable for the further detention depends upon what they reasonably foresaw when they transferred Plaintiffs to police custody,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “On remand, the district court should conduct a second trial on the limited issue of whether (and to what extent) Defendants should have known their unlawful seizure of Plaintiffs would result in their prolonged detention in Rio Rancho custody and, if so, whether any additional damages are appropriate.” The defendants’ cross-appeal was dismissed as being untimely filed. See: Martinez v. Carson, 697 F.3d 1252 (10th Cir. 2012).

Following remand, the case settled on January 28, 2013, before the second trial was held. According to Paul Kennedy, one of the attorneys representing Martinez and Sarmiento, the defendants agreed to pay $60,000 in damages and approximately $180,000 in attorney fees and costs.

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