ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that a New Mexico police officer did not violate the constitutional rights of a woman and her five children when he shot at their minivan as they fled a chaotic traffic stop in 2013.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling in the case filed by Oriana Farrell, who was pulled over for speeding and led officers on a high-speed pursuit through the tourist enclave of Taos.
The appeals court found that the case against Elias Montoya, the officer who fired three times at the van and later left the force, should have been dismissed by a lower court.
Montoya’s defense rested on the principal of qualified immunity, which shields public officials from legal actions unless their conduct was unreasonable in light of clearly established law.
The Farrells argued that Montoya’s gunshots amounted to excessive force and that he violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable seizure when he shot at their vehicle.
They claim they submitted to the officers’ authority when they were first pulled over.
The appeals court disagreed with the Farrells and noted that seizure situations end once a suspect flees.
Lawyers on both sides did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the ruling.
Farrell was initially charged with aggravated fleeing, child abuse and drug paraphernalia possession but later reached a plea agreement. She was sentenced to probation and community service.
Court records show Farrell and her children were on a highway near Taos when Officer Tony DeTavis pulled her over for speeding.
Footage from the officer’s dash camera shows him approaching the minivan and explaining to Farrell that he was going to give her a ticket for going 71 mph in a 55 mph zone. She had two options: pay a $126 penalty or see a judge.
Farrell refused to make a decision. As DeTavis walked back to his car to inform dispatch, the minivan pulled onto the road. DeTavis followed with his siren on.
The van stopped again. After repeated commands, Farrell agreed to walk to the back of the van with DeTavis but then quickly returned to the vehicle.
Commotion followed as the children screamed and Farrell’s son tussled with DeTavis before getting back in the van and shutting the doors as the officers repeatedly ordered them out of the vehicle.
DeTavis broke the rear window with his baton. The van began to drive away and Montoya fired three shots.
Court records show the minivan neither slowed nor stopped as the shots were fired.
Montoya said he was aiming at the rear tire. Authorities say no bullets hit the van or anyone inside.
The three officers gave chase, at times reaching speeds of 100 mph. As Farrell reached a congested area at the edge of Taos, authorities said, she weaved through traffic and drove on the wrong side of the road on several occasions.
According to affidavits, Farrell’s daughter called 911 during the chase, and the family looked for a police station where they could pull over because they were afraid of the three officers.
After a few minutes, Farrell drove into a hotel parking lot and surrendered.