FARMINGTON — The attorney for a man who Farmington police shot last month said the shooting stemmed from a seat belt violation and he plans to file a lawsuit against the city and the police department.

Attorney Arlon Stoker filed a tort claims notice on behalf of his client, Michael Chavez, on Wednesday. Chavez was shot in the elbow and foot and a bullet grazed his back after he fled from police during a traffic stop March 22 near 15th Street and Schofield Lane.

A tort claims notice informs a public agency that someone may file a lawsuit against it.

Stoker said he will file claims on behalf of Chavez against the city of Farmington, the police department and the officers involved in the shooting.

"The police were way out of line," Stoker said. "You can't use deadly force against somebody who is not using deadly force against you and is running away from you."

Stoker said witnesses to the shooting will testify that although Chavez fled after Farmington police officer Christopher Blea pulled him over for a seat belt violation, Chavez tried to surrender and Blea kept shooting.

During the chase, Stoker also said that Blea nearly shot Farmington police Sgt. Dave Monfils, who also fired shots during the incident, and pedestrians.

"All of this over an alleged seat belt violation! What is the matter with you people?" Stoker wrote in the tort claims notice.

Both Blea and Monfils were placed on paid administrative leave and have since returned to restrictive duty, said Farmington police Lt. Taft Tracy. Monfils is working as an administrator and Blea is doing drug recognition training.

Tracy, who works in internal affairs, said that while the officers are back on restrictive duty, they have not necessarily been cleared of wrongdoing in connection to the shooting.

Before the shooting, Chavez ran from the passenger side of a truck that Blea pulled over for a seat belt violation.

Stoker said Chavez bolted right after the traffic stop because he had active warrants for his arrest for alleged burglaries.

Video from Blea's dashboard camera shows Chavez jumping out of the passenger side of the truck. Blea pursues him, and the truck drives away.

Tracy said passengers fleeing from cars can be handled by officers in different ways, depending on the circumstances. A person running after a traffic stop indicates to an officer that the person may have been involved in a serious crime.

It wasn't necessarily the wrong decision to leave the truck and chase Chavez, Tracy said.

Chavez ran south toward a parking lot on Schofield Lane. Police have said that he brandished a cell phone, which Blea thought was a gun, and then Blea started shooting.

Monfils, who was on a motorcycle, approached the scene from the east and also fired shots, according to court documents. Footage from Monfils' dashboard camera shows what appears to be a bullet from Blea, who is across the street, come within feet of Monfils during the chase.

Stoker said it appears that Blea shot Chavez. He wasn't certain if Monfils shot his client.

Stoker said Blea's actions during the stop show incompetence and possibly a "felonious criminal act in pursuing and shooting an unarmed man."

Tracy said Farmington police officers are allowed to use lethal force against a suspect when officers believe they or other people are in imminent danger. If Blea thought Chavez was going to shoot him, he would have been justified in firing his weapon, Tracy said.

"We use a level above what they are using toward us," he said.

Via his attorney, Chavez declined an interview.

Stoker said his client is adamant that he did not point his cell phone at police.

Chavez, 41, is being held at San Juan County Adult Detention Center awaiting felony charges for alleged burglaries. He has waived his preliminary hearings, and he will face charges in district court. Chavez has not been charged in connection to the shooting.

Stoker said Chavez is being held in a medical unit at the jail. He has already had one surgery, and he will need additional operations to repair his elbow.

 

Ryan Boetel can be reached at rboetel@daily-times.com; 505-564-4644. Follow him on Twitter @RBoetel.