The City of Belen, its police department and an officer have become the subject of a federal civil lawsuit filed by a man who claims the officer violated his civil rights.
Karl Benavidez, 18, a resident of Belen, filed a civil complaint in federal court on Aug. 20 after he was arrested by Belen Police Officer Gerald B. Espinoza five months ago.
Benavidez is suing on grounds of false imprisonment and false arrest, intentional infliction of emotional distress, constitutional deprivations, violations of the New Mexico Constitution, malicious abuse of process and seeking attorney fees and costs.
Belen Police Chief Paul Skotchdopole said “The allegations are totally baseless, and we have proof to refute many, if not all, of his allegations, and we look forward to litigating this particular issue. I am confident we will prevail.”
According to the complaint, Benavidez was traveling east on Aragon at 1 a.m. with his friends as Espinoza followed him for several blocks in his patrol car. Benavidez claims that the officer hadn’t engaged his sirens or emergency equipment until Benavidez failed to completely halt at a stop sign at Aragon and Gabaldon Road.
“Officer Espinoza turned on his emergency equipment, so Benavidez came to a slow stop and rolled down his window for a ticket,” the complaint said. “Espinoza immediately pulled Benavidez out of the vehicle, handcuffed him and began questioning his passenger.”
In Espinoza’s police report, he claims he first observed Benavidez’s Chevy Nova headed east on West Aragon, crossing Main Street. The officer said he observed the vehicle traveling at a “high rate of speed and that it did not appear to be stopping at any of the posted signs.”
Espinoza says he engaged his lights and sirens after Benavidez approached the intersection of Aragon and Gabaldon roads.
Benavidez’s lawsuit further charges that the police officer told him that he was under arrest for reckless driving and eluding an officer. Espinoza searched the vehicle before he pushed Benavidez into the patrol car, the lawsuit claims.
“Mr. Benavidez was uncooperative, loud and belligerent,” Espinoza wrote in his report. “Mr. Benavidez kept making threats against me to rip my heart out …” The police officer also alleged Benavidez threatened him with physical violence.
While at the police station, Espinoza performed a field sobriety test, but Benavidez showed no signs of impairment, the lawsuit says.
“Officer Espinoza booked Karl Benavidez and held him on an unreasonable amount of $800 cash-only bond,” the complaint said. “He was incarcerated for three days (and) Espinoza said, ‘It looks like you’re going to stay here ’til Monday.'”
Benavidez claims that while he was incarcerated at the Belen Police Department, he wasn’t given toilet paper, a pillow, a toothbrush or a shower and was only allowed one blanket. He also alleges that he was allowed to make only one telephone call about 20 hours after he was arrested.
Benavidez’s attorney Tibo Chavez Jr. alleges that the city, the police department and the officer violated his client’s constitutional rights. The complaint alleges that Benavidez was unlawfully searched and seized, treated and punished without due process and cruelly and unusually punished with excessive force.
The charges against Benavidez were eventually dismissed when the case went before the municipal judge in Belen in May.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.