FARMINGTON — The San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, Farmington police and six officers were sued on Wednesday by two Native American families alleging abuse of power.
The suit alleges deprivation of rights, unreasonable use of force, false arrests, unlawful search and wrongful detention and assault and battery.
The suit stems from the arrest in March of an elderly couple and their grandchildren while authorities searched for a car thief even though it was obvious the family, which included three small children, had nothing to do with the crime, the family’s lawyer said.
Farmington police said they previously reviewed the incident and found its officers involved acted appropriately.
Sheriff’s Capt. Tim Black said the county’s risk management personnel previously did a review of the incident and found the deputies didn’t do anything wrong.
Margaret and William Mike and Shannon and Georgette Mike filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque.
The lawsuit says that on March 19 at about 9 a.m., police officers throughout the county were searching for a suspect who, police said, had broken into the Central Consolidated School District's administration building in Kirtland and stolen a brown Chevrolet Impala with government plates and several laptops.
Margaret and William Mike were driving a blue Chevrolet Malibu with their three grandchildren, aged 11, 13 and 15, according to the lawsuit. Shannon and Georgette Mike are the children’s parents and were not in the vehicle.
Arlon Stoker, the Mikes’ attorney, said in the lawsuit that Terry McCoy, a sheriff’s deputy, followed the Mikes for several miles before performing a felony stop with deputies and Farmington police officers who had guns drawn.
A felony stop is when police use their vehicles for cover and use their speaker system to give suspects orders, Farmington police Lt. Taft Tracy said.
The officers used the tactic because police were told the suspects in the burglary may have been armed, Tracy said.
Officers for Farmington and the county ordered the family out of the car one by one and placed them in patrol cars. The grandparents and the 13-year-old were handcuffed, according to the lawsuit.
William Mike, who is 67 and suffers from chronic kidney disease and diabetes, was ordered to kneel on the cold, wet pavement while he was handcuffed, according to the suit.
“The adults and children were terrified and extremely distressed,” Stoker said in the lawsuit. “The 11 year old ... can be heard on the recording equipment of one of the police vehicles sobbing and praying to Jesus, and asking Jesus to protect her and her family from the officers.”
At about 10:15 a.m. that day, the sheriff’s office arrested David Zepeda, 31, after he crashed the stolen Central Consolidated School District vehicle at the intersection of U.S. 64 and Andrea Drive. Zepeda was charged with multiple felonies. He pleaded guilty in August and is currently incarcerated at the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton.
Stoker said law enforcement officers should have quickly recognized the family was not part of the burglary. Police had already identified the suspect was a Hispanic male in his 20s.
“McCoy knew or should have known that the Mike automobile was not the stolen vehicle because he himself was driving an unmarked Chevrolet Impala police vehicle and the Mike automobile was a Chevrolet Malibu,” Stoker said.
Stoker also named McCoy in the lawsuit and said he has a history of violating the rights of Native Americans and the elderly.
Sheriff’s office officials strongly objected to that allegation against McCoy. They said he has no history of violations. He has never been charged with any crimes.
“That sounds like B.S.” Black said. “We don’t retain deputies that violate civil rights.”
Farmington police did an internal review of the incident in May when a claim notice was filed, Tracy said.
“We have already looked into the matter and our officers performed the way they were trained,” Tracy said.