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Trial starts in suit against SFPD for chase that ended with crash

SANTA FE — Attorneys for a woman who was seriously injured in a crash that ended a high-speed police pursuit two years ago say officers from the Santa Fe Police Department broke policy when they chased the vehicle that caused the wreck.

But the officer who was in pursuit says he was trying to make sure a passenger in the fleeing car was safe. “I just couldn’t live with myself if someone would have gotten killed,” he testified.

Arlena Jackson, 80, filed a lawsuit against the SFPD and the city after receiving serious injuries in the resulting collision. A jury trial in the case began in District Court Tuesday and is expected to last the rest of the week.

In April 2016, officers responded to a fight with reports of a possible gun at an apartment complex on Rufina Street and saw a man with a female passenger flee the complex in what turned out to be a stolen Toyota Tacoma. The driver, later identified as Jeremy Chavez, led officers on a chase that reached 75 mph on Agua Fria that ended with the crash at the intersection with Lopez Lane.

Chavez and his passenger, later identified as Jolene Martinez, ran away from the crash and were arrested days later.

Toyota of Santa Fe, from where the Tacoma had been stolen, was originally a defendant in the lawsuit. Jackson’s attorneys alleged the car dealership didn’t have enough security on its lot to keep cars from being stolen. But Jackson and the dealership recently settled outside of court.

Lee Hunt, an attorney representing Jackson, said during opening arguments that the officers pursuing Chavez broke department policy by continuing a high speed pursuit on a two-lane road, Agua Fria. He said Officer Jacob Martinez, who was leading the pursuit, was too focused on catching Chavez.

“Is tunnel vision what allowed this pursuit to continue?” Hunt asked the jury. “The likelihood of this pursuit ending in a crash was extremely high. That’s evidence of tunnel vision.”

Hunt said Chavez bears a lot of blame in the crash, but argued that he would have slowed down if the pursuit had been called off. Chavez is now in prison after pleading guilty to unlawful taking of a motor vehicle and aggravated fleeing of a law enforcement officer. “He’s accepted his criminal responsibility for this event,” Hunt said.

Officer Martinez testified that he wasn’t sure if Jolene Martinez, Chavez’s passenger, was a domestic violence victim or not but wanted to pursue the truck to make sure she was safe. He did admit that he could have called off the chase. He also said he wished a supervisor could have called it off for him.

“I wanted to terminate it the entire time,” Officer Martinez said. “It scared the heck out of me. I just didn’t want to let her go. I didn’t want something bad to happen. I wanted someone to say, ‘Stop, we’re not going to pursue the vehicle.’ I just couldn’t live with myself if someone would have gotten killed.”

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