New Mexico city settles police brutality case for $1.4 million
LAS CRUCES, N.M. — After deciding last year not to appeal a $1.6 million jury award given to a former Las Cruces couple, the city has settled the lawsuit for $1.4 million, according to a law firm that represented the couple..
Jillian and Andrew Beck successfully sued two police officers in U.S. District Court here over allegations of brutality and civil-rights violations.
"We are relieved that this terrible event is now over. Our community deserves law enforcement officers on whom we can depend," Margaret Strickland of McGraw & Strickland LLC said in a statement. "The Becks continue to heal from the trauma inflicted."
Two Las Cruces police officers — Isaiah Baker and Joseph Campa — were found to have violated the couple's civil rights when they responded to a dispute involving the Becks and a neighbor on the evening of Jan. 5, 2013.
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Jillian Beck, then 26, had been "upset with a neighbor who was throwing rocks and blowing an air horn in the middle of the night at another neighbor's dog," according to the lawsuit. After explaining her complaint to Baker, Beck turned to walk away, but Baker "unexpectedly grabbed her arm, twisted it behind her back, and slammed her to the ground."
During the civil trial in February 2017, it was revealed that Beck had tried to lift her head off the ground to call out to a neighbor. But as she lifted her head, Baker slammed her face onto rocks, her lawyers said.
An image of Beck's bloodied face was presented as evidence during the trial. Her nose and wrist were broken and fractured.
When her husband attempted to help her, Campa detained him. He testified that he believed his wife was "choking on her own blood."
In a police audio recording played during the trial. Baker can be heard saying "she got thrown" and she got a "face full of rocks," Strickland said. A female officer then said "cool" in response.
The Becks then were placed under arrest.
After about three hours of deliberations, the jury determined Baker had used unreasonably excessive force on Jillian Beck in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. He also committed a battery in violation of New Mexico law, the jury ruled.
Because the latter was not a criminal charge, Baker did not face any time behind bars.
The jury further concluded that Campa had unlawfully seized and arrested Andrew Beck, also in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Las Cruces, the second largest city in New Mexico behind Albuquerque, has about 100,000 residents and is about 45 miles northwest of El Paso. It is closer than that to the Mexican border.
The couple, who now live in Enid, Okla., was awarded $1 million in punitive damages as a result of Baker's "willful, malicious, wanton and reckless conduct," according to Strickland. The couple was awarded an additional $600,000 in compensatory damages.
In March, city officials said they were going to consider appealing the verdict in 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but instead filed a federal District Court motion to throw out the excessive damages verdict or have a new trial. The city was expected to have about $100 million in revenues this fiscal year and municipalities typically have insurance that often cover payouts and settlements.
The request for a new trial was dismissed when the settlement was made final. An appeal to the 10th Circuit never was filed, according to Strickland.
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City officials did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comments on its decision not to appeal.
The most recent court records show that lawyers for the couple, the city and federal District Court Judge William Lynch had a settlement conference in May 2017. The settlement was finalized in the summer, according to a copy of the agreement.
The agreement shows that the settlement was divided as such:
• $500,000 to Jillian Beck, the same as the original judgment
• $100,000 to Andrew Beck, also the same as the original judgment
• $335,000 in attorney’s fees
• $465,000 in punitive damages, reduced from $1 million
The city's employment directory continues to list Baker and Campa working at the Las Cruces Police Department.
Follow Carlos Andres López on Twitter: @carlopez_los