Emergency Response

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit on Friday upheld a lower court’s finding that a Denver police officer could be sued for allegedly using excessive force in a 2013 shootout that left the plaintiff injured.

On Jan. 16, 2013, Johnny Montoya was party to a firearm-involved domestic incident. Montoya left the scene and picked up his two brothers, a woman and Michael Valdez. When a Denver police officer caught up to Montoya’s truck, a chase ensued. Valdez, who was sitting in the truck bed, entered the cab.

During the chase, someone in the cab shot pursuing Sergeant Rorbert Motyka Jr. in the shoulder. Shortly afterward, the truck crashed. Motyka ended up shooting “two rounds of six or seven shots” at the vehicle, as did Lt. John Macdonald. The officers shot Valdez in the back and finger, causing permanent damage to the finger.

Motyka ceased firing after his vision began to blur due to his injury and “he believed he was becoming a liability,” according to court documents. Other officers kept shooting and eventually killed Montoya.

Valdez sued the city in 2015, claiming excessive force and Denver’s liability for the actions of its officers. A federal district court denied qualified immunity, which protects government employees from lawsuits absent a violation of clear constitutional rights, to Motyka. In reaching its decision, the court described the crime scene as “sprayed with bullets[,] permitting the inference that the officers were firing without aiming at a clear target.”

The court, in believing that a reasonable juror could find Motyka had liability, described the injured officer as “very angry as well and very eager to get the occupant who shot him.” The scattered bullets and the attitude of Motyka suggested that “Motyka 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 fact that another officer had arrived at the crash site shortly before Motyka and had refrained from shooting provided further context to the alleged unreasonableness of Motyka’s actions, the court ruled.

The district court also granted qualified immunity to Macdonald and denied it to the city of Denver.

In writing for the three-member circuit panel, Judge Paul J. Kelly Jr., ordered all appeals, including one by Valdez objecting to Macdonald’s immunity, dismissed. The district court, he wrote, “reached this conclusion only after discussing the sheer number of factual disputes presented by the record.”

Circuit judges were under direction from the U.S. Supreme Court that if a district court finds that a jury may reasonably conclude that facts are in favor of the plaintiff, the appeals court must “usually take them as true.”

“Though the Appellants argue legal errors pervade the district court’s view of the facts concerning seizure and objective reasonableness,” Kelly wrote, “in the end they are challenging the district court’s view of the facts.”

The case is Michael Valdez v. Robert Motyka, Jr., et al.

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