Six months after NM cavity search case, half the cops still on job
STILL ON THE JOB: Two members of the Deming, N.M., police department and one member of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office cited in a $1.6 million lawsuit are still on the job.
By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog
SANTA FE, N.M. — Half the officers involved in an anal cavity search of a man wrongly suspected of carrying drugs are still on the job, a New Mexico Watchdog investigation shows.
Three officers for the Deming Police Department were never even disciplined.
Two of the three officers in Deming remain on the job, documents obtained through New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act requests show. One of the three officers in the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office is still working for the county.
The officers were listed in a lawsuit filed by David Eckert, a Lordsburg, N.M., resident, who, officers thought, was carrying drugs. In January, Eckert received a $1.6 million settlement. The city of Deming paid Eckert $950,000 and Hidalgo County, $650,000.
“If officers are not fired for this level of abuse, particularly after such a huge settlement in damages, it sends a rather chilling message,” legal scholar Jonathan Turley told New Mexico Watchdog earlier this year. “It suggests that there is no abuse that will cost an officer his or her job.”
In January 2013, Eckert was pulled over by Deming cops for allegedly failing to make a complete stop in a Walmart parking lot in Deming. Hidalgo County sheriff’s officers were there, too.
Authorities suspected Eckert was carrying drugs inside his anal cavity and over a 14-hour period subjected Eckert to two rounds of X-rays and three enemas. They then took him to a hospital in Silver City, N.M — in another county — where Eckert was forced to undergo a colonoscopy. No drugs were found and Eckert was later charged $6,000 for the hospital bill.
Officials at the Deming Police Department and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office have refused to comment.
“That is a personnel matter,” Deming Police Chief Brandon Gigante said.
But after filing IPRA requests about the case, New Mexico Watchdog received documents from Deming and Hidalgo County.
The $1.6-million lawsuit listed three Hidalgo County Sheriff ‘s officers — Robert Rodriguez, Patrick Green and David Arrendondo — involved in the Eckert incident. But in the records obtained by New Mexico Watchdog, only Arrendondo is now listed as a sheriff’s office employee.
Deming Police Officers Bobby Orosco, Robert Chavez and Maricela Hernandez were listed in the original lawsuit.
An attorney for the City of Deming, Jim Foy, said in a letter to New Mexico Watchdog that Orosco and Chavez are still employed by the Deming Police Department — Orosco as a captain and Chavez as a patrolman — while Hernandez is not. The letter failed to elaborate.
In addition, Foy wrote, “be advised that none of these officers were disciplined for matters involving the David Eckert case.”
Hidalgo County officials would not disclose whether any of their officers were disciplined, claiming that such information doesn’t have to be disclosed because “they are considered matters of opinion in personnel files.”
That’s a subject of debate, with a member the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government legal panel saying, “discipline is not a matter of opinion.”
In his letter to New Mexico Watchdog, Foy elaborated on some of the details of the case.
“Given the uncertainty of any outcome and cost of litigation, both sides Eckert and the City of Deming mutually agreed to settle Eckert’s claim against the City of Deming each agreeing that the City of Deming was doing so without admitting any wrong doing,” Foy’s letter to New Mexico Watchdog said.
Foy also included a letter he wrote to the local paper, the Deming Headlight, in which he described the Eckert case as “a systemic failure.”
At the same time, Foy said, “The line officers in question followed all policies and procedures in place at the time.”
Foy’s letter contends the incident was complicated.
“It was not as though Deming Police Officers grabbed Mr. Eckert and unilaterally took him to Silver City for a series of anal cavity searches,” the letter reads.
Foy wrote that the Deming police “relied upon information from an out of county” police expert who said a drug-sniffing canine indicated the presence of narcotics on Eckert’s car seat. Plus, “this police expert” told the cops that Eckert had a history drug trafficking and “was known to carry narcotics in his anal cavity.”
Furthermore, Foy pointed out the 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office signed off on a warrant to OK an anal cavity search.
“At present, the Assistant District Attorney who prepared and presented the affidavit in support of the search warrant is no longer working for the Sixth Judicial District Attorney’s Office,” Foy’s letter said.
“The Chief of Police, who at the time was unaware until the following day of the anal cavity search has retired and a new chief of police has been appointed subsequent to this unfortunate event. With a new chief of police in place, the City of Deming has implemented new policies and procedures and is continuing to implement new polices and procedures so this type of event will never happen again.”
Click here to read the copy of the $1.6 million settlement with Eckert.
And click here to read the response to New Mexico Watchdog’s IPRA request from the city of Deming’s attorney, as well as the attorney’s interpretation of some of the details of the case.
Contact Rob Nikolewski at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski