Federal Judge Finds New Mexico Police Violated Legal Agreement from ACLU Racial Bias Lawsuit

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
June 18, 2004 12:00 am

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SANTA FE, NM — A federal court has found the Hobbs Police Department to be in “substantial non-compliance” with a settlement agreement stemming from a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico on behalf of African American residents of Hobbs, the ACLU said today.

The agreement was established to rectify a pervasive pattern of excessive use of force, unwarranted searches and seizures, and other unconstitutional practices that were alleged by residents in a 1999 lawsuit, Johnson, et al v. City of Hobbs, et. al. In her ruling, Judge Martha Vazquez found more than 20 violations of the agreement and criticized comments in the city’s legal brief that, she felt, “raise questions regarding Defendant’s understanding of, and commitment to protecting, the Constitutional rights of the citizens of Hobbs.”

“The judge’s decision is a total condemnation of the police department’s failure to address the very serious and well-substantiated civil rights matters raised in the Johnson lawsuit,” said Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “The judge’s comments echo what we have felt all along: that the police in Hobbs neither intend to take civil rights complaints seriously, nor even fully appreciate the Constitutional limits on their power. The fact that the police department still doesn’t ‘get it’ after five years of civil litigation should be very worrisome to the people of Hobbs.”

Hobbs is a city of approximately 30,000 located in the southeast corner of the state near the Texas border.

Among the violations of the agreement, Judge Vazquez cited the Police Department’s failure to:

  • investigate evidence that showed a disparate racial impact of Hobbs policing activities;
  • require officers and detectives to file written reports accounting for the use of force, warrantless searches and seizures, and detentions that were made without reasonable suspicion;
  • refer cases of apparent police abuse to the Internal Affairs unit;
  • review citizen complaints and take remedial action for officers who receive three or more complaints over any three-year period.

Judge Vazquez named six officers who, during the 14-month period between July 2001 and September 2002, accounted for over 60 citizen complaints. None of the officers received counseling or retraining, nor were they ever required to consult with superior officers about the abuses.

Richard Rosenstock, a volunteer attorney for the ACLU, said the ACLU “went to great lengths to comb through the data and pick out the officers who were the greatest offenders.”

“Not all of the officers are to blame for the problems in the department,” he noted. “In fact, if you really want to assign blame, look to the Hobbs city councilors. They have simply refused to deal with the problems. The department has a new police chief and a new opportunity to fix things. Hopefully the city council will wake up and support the chief in making the needed changes. Without their backing, he may have a tough time overcoming the factions within the department that are resistant to change.”

On Tuesday, Judge Vazquez extended the term of the stipulated agreement for one year and ordered the police department to provide files on citizen complaints to ACLU attorneys. She stated that because the agreement was not a judicially ordered consent decree, her authority did not extend to sanctioning the police department for its failure to comply or granting any of modifications to the original agreement. Still, ACLU attorneys said they were happy with the outcome.

“Interest in justice demanded relief, and the court responded to the call,” Rosenstock said. “The ACLU will continue to closely monitor the department’s progress. If improvements aren’t made, the ACLU is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that people’s rights are ultimately protected.”

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