Jury Awards $2.5M to Innocent Man Shot by Denver Police
After more than nine years, a Denver man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time has finally obtained justice. The innocent victim of a police shooting on January 16, 2013, Michael Valdez sued the Denver Police and an individual officer in 2015.
A jury ordered the City of Denver to pay Valdez $2.5 million for its negligent failure to train officers on the proper use of deadly force. The jury also delivered a judgment against Sgt. Robert Motyka, whom the court had stripped of qualified immunity. Ironically, Motyka will have to pay more than $130,000 for excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment in the very incident that won him the Denver Police Foundation’s Medal of Honor.
Valdez’s problems began when he accepted a ride from a friend, not knowing the friend and the vehicle were wanted for a domestic violence incident earlier that day. En route, police spotted the truck and attempted a stop, which turned into a pursuit. Then another passenger in the truck fired on police, striking Sgt. Motyka in the shoulder. The pursuit ended when the truck crashed. Valdez exited with others and immediately got on the ground, arms and legs spread, signaling surrender.
That’s when a barrage of gunfire from officers peppered the truck and struck Valdez in the back and hand. He sustained fractures to his vertebrae and required a partial amputation of a finger. Valdez was also arrested, and charged with attempted murder, assault and first-degree murder, even though, according to Valdez’s lawsuit officers knew Valdez wasn’t involved in the incidents.
As reported in The Denver Gazette, “Valdez remained in jail in ‘agonizing pain’ for more than two months, unable to post bond, until prosecutors dismissed the charges on March 19, 2013.” Valdez continues to suffer from partial paralysis in his legs and loss of bowel function.
Valdez scored his first victory when the trial court stripped Sgt. Motyka of qualified immunity, which protects officers from personal liability for mistakes made while exercising their duty. Qualified immunity, however, does not cover recklessly dangerous or deliberate acts in violation of the law. In contrast to the image of a calm, cool and collected Medal of Honor winner, the trial court found evidence that Motyka was “very angry … and very eager to get the [vehicle] occupant who shot him.” The court concluded Motyka had “started shooting without making any effort to determine whether there was any immediate threat to him or others as the occupants of the cab came out.”
The Valdez complaint cited a “long-standing culture” in Denver “of tolerating excessive force by police.” The complaint cited an incident in Motyka’s recent past, when he and other “officers forcefully entered a home without a warrant and assaulted a father and three sons, later realizing the people they actually were after — a pair of brothers who reportedly sold drugs and ran a brothel out of the home — had recently moved out of the home.” In that case, similarly to Valdez, “members of the family were falsely charged with assaulting officers.” That family eventually won a verdict of $1.8 million in 2014.
If the Denver PD is going to hand out medals to officers who abandon professionalism in the pursuit of personal vendettas, it’s only fair that the City of Denver pays compensation to their victims. But considering the injuries that Valdez suffered, $2.5 million is a paltry sum. The city can easily absorb that loss. What’s more important is the stripping of an officer’s qualified immunity that enabled the judgment against Motyka individually. $130,000 is a substantial sum for anyone on a police officer’s salary. Let’s hope the court’s willingness to deny immunity is sufficient to create a deterrent for police misconduct in the future.