Flashing lights on top of police patrol car

The roof of a police patrol car at night, with the blue and red lights flashing.

A late-night vehicle pursuit through Littleton, Englewood and Denver that left a driver partially paralyzed and a passenger dead has now culminated in a federal judge's decision to grant immunity to the police officers involved.

There was no caselaw, Rodriguez concluded, labeling the officers' use of force unconstitutional "in the context of a car chase of potentially armed felony suspects by law enforcement officers."

The decision in favor of the officers came amid protestations from Marta Sanchez, the injured driver, and the estate of Stephanie Lopez, the passenger who died, that a jury ought to resolve the many disputed facts of the chaotic vehicle chase. However, Rodriguez pointed out the U.S. Supreme Court has never found deadly force during a car chase to be unconstitutional.

Consequently, even if the officers' actions did violate the rights of Sanchez and Lopez, they would not have known their force was unreasonable under existing law.

The Aug. 30 ruling came after U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael E. Hegarty extensively reviewed the facts of the case, as well as video evidence from the pursuit. Although he declined to say whether the officers' actions were a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which covers excessive force claims, he, too, found no caselaw clearly supporting the plaintiffs' claims.

Shortly before midnight on June 29, 2017, Littleton police officers Anthony Guzman, Luke McGrath and Joseph Carns were notified that multiple suspects had carjacked a Chevrolet Malibu. One of the suspects reportedly had fired a gun in the presence of the victim. The officers located the car traveling on Santa Fe Drive, where its occupants included the driver, Sanchez, and passengers Lopez and Dominic Martinez.

According to Hegarty's analysis, Sanchez was driving in excess of the speed limit, ran a red light and nearly hit a motorcyclist. Near Arkansas Avenue in Denver, Carns hit the Malibu and caused it to spin around and stop. Guzman and McGrath then opened fire, reportedly in response to Sanchez starting to drive away.

Sanchez continued to flee, after which Guzman hit the vehicle and caused it to stop on Bannock Street. Martinez had jumped out of the moving vehicle and was no longer present, and the officer began yelling commands at Sanchez and Lopez. The Malibu reversed towards Guzman and bounced over the curb, but Carns, who could not see clearly, thought the car had run over Guzman.

Carns then shot five times into the car, striking Lopez in the head.

Once more, Sanchez drove off. After the Malibu came to a stop on its own, Guzman rammed it with his own car. Officer Brian Martinez of Englewood had now joined the pandemonium, and Sanchez turned the Malibu toward him. Guzman then shot 11 times into the car, with Martinez shooting an additional five times. Eventually Martinez called on the other officers to cease fire, but it was unclear whether Guzman had continued to shoot even after the car stopped.

In all, the plaintiffs estimated the officers fired between 44 and 66 shots at the car. Several months later, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann found the officers' actions were justified given Sanchez's refusal to surrender.

"With each subsequent use of force, the suspect vehicle’s continued efforts to escape from police demonstrated a brazenness that justified the officers’ fears that the suspects posed a significant risk of danger not only to the officers but to the public at large,” McCann wrote in February 2018.

Sanchez, who is partially paralyzed from the encounter, filed a lawsuit, along with Martinez and Lopez's estate that alleged excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The plaintiffs disputed that the officers had fired only in response to Sanchez's attempts to flee.

A jury could conclude, wrote attorney David J. Lang, "that firing on a stopped vehicle, where all the occupants had their hands up attempting to surrender, is an unreasonable use of deadly force and shocks the conscience."

But the officers countered that, given what they knew about the armed carjacking and Sanchez's reckless driving — plus Carns' mistaken belief the Malibu had run over Guzman — it was reasonable for them to use deadly force out of fear for their own lives and the safety of the public.

In Hegarty's recommendation, he agreed the plaintiffs had endangered the lives of themselves and others, prompting the officers to fire upon them. 

"The Supreme Court specifically seems to distinguish dangerous car chase cases from other Fourth Amendment contexts," he observed.

He cited the court's 2015 decision of Mullenix v. Luna, in which an officer asked permission to shoot at a fleeing driver instead of allowing the car to run over spike strips. After being told to "stand by," the officer fired into the car anyway from an overpass, failing to hit any key pieces of the vehicle but instead killing the driver. The Supreme court granted the officer qualified immunity.

"The court has thus never found the use of deadly force in connection with a dangerous car chase to violate the Fourth Amendment, let alone to be a basis for denying qualified immunity," the court wrote in an unsigned decision. Only Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, warning against giving judicial approval to a "shoot first, think later” mentality.

The plaintiffs objected to Hegarty's findings, insisting there were several pieces of evidence that could cause a jury to find in their favor. For example, jurors could conclude Sanchez drove away in response to the officers' gunfire, not before it — meaning the officers were in no danger when they deployed deadly force.

Rodriguez, the district judge, admitted in her order there were potential pieces of the narrative that were murky, specifically involving the movement of the Malibu and the timing of the shots. However, because the officers invoked qualified immunity, it was not enough to show they violated the plaintiffs' rights, but that court precedent had delineated their use of force as unreasonable. Rodriguez believed it had not.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and Martinez did not respond to a request for comment. Lawyers for the Littleton officers declined to provide a statement on the ruling.

The case is Sanchez et al. v. Guzman et al.

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