The family of a man unintentionally killed in 2017 when a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy opened fire on a stolen truck after a pursuit has settled a federal excessive force lawsuit against the county for $1.5 million, their attorney said.
An earlier $400,000 state court settlement arising from the same deadly shooting of Martin Jim, a 25-year-old unarmed passenger in the truck, brings the total paid to Jim’s partner, Shawntay Ortiz and his four-year-old son, to $1.9 million.
That’s in addition to last year’s $1.36 million settlement paid to the estate of the driver of the pickup truck, Isaac Padilla, 23, who was also killed.
Another $40,000 was paid to two other passengers in the truck.
The total payout to resolve legal claims related to Deputy Joshua Mora’s actions that morning comes to $3.3 million.
“This office held the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department and its deputy responsible for the horrific unnecessary death of Martin Jim,” said Albuquerque attorney Sam Bregman. “Unfortunately, taxpayers end up having to pay for the unconstitutional actions of the sheriff’s department.”
A sheriff’s spokesman didn’t return a request for comment on Thursday.
The settlement in the high-profile case was reached after Senior U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera of Albuquerque ruled last December that a “reasonable jury could conclude that Deputy Mora acted unreasonably.”
Mora, the son of then-undersheriff Rudy Mora, had worked for about 18 months as a sheriff’s deputy at the time of the shooting, which followed a high speed chase of a stolen truck about 4 a.m. on Nov. 17, 2017.
A deputy rammed the Dodge truck at Coors and Glenrio NW on Albuquerque’s West Side, obliterating the front driver’s-side wheel.
With the truck at a standstill, two sheriff’s deputies parked their vehicles to block the truck from moving forward. Then Mora arrived on the scene.
In the span of 18 seconds, Mora jumped from his car, ran to the truck, yelled commands at the driver, and fired seven rounds, according to Herrera’s ruling.
Mora didn’t realize Jim was sitting in the back seat. The defendants, Mora, the county and Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III, maintained Jim’s death was unintentional and that the shooting of Padilla was justified. No weapons were found in the truck.
Mora later said he used deadly force because he heard the truck’s engine rev up and feared the driver would try to lunge it forward and hit another sheriff’s deputy.
The other two sheriff’s deputies at the scene said in affidavits or in post-shooting reports that they feared they would be hurt or killed.
But the judge, in her ruling, noted that neither of them opted to fire as Mora did.
“Although it is a close call, there are genuine issues of material fact about whether an objectively reasonable officer would have perceived that the chase was ongoing and that officers were imperiled, and therefore a jury could conclude that Deputy Mora’s firing at the Dodge was objectively unreasonable,” she wrote.
The sheriff’s sergeant on the scene, Adam Gaitan, was the more “imperiled officer” but said he didn’t shoot because he was uncertain whether he was “slow to react or acting and reacting on training or experience,” the judge’s ruling stated.
Sheriff’s Deputy Sergio Cordova stated that he did not fire his weapon because he “did not have a threat that (he) needed to fire (his) firearm.”
“The fact that people directly in front of (the driver), none of those sheriffs (deputies) felt the need to shoot him,” Bregman said. “And he (Mora) comes from the side and shoots seven rounds into that car and unfortunately Martin Jim died. There was no justification under any circumstances of just willfully shooting into that car.”
Herrera did agree with the defendants that Mora could be dismissed from the case because he had violated no clearly established law and was entitled to qualified immunity.
Bregman in the lawsuit alleged Mora had a history of using excessive force even as a sheriff’s cadet.
“I hope he’s gone back and gotten remedial training when it comes to use of force because at least on this day, in this incident and previous instances, this deputy was out of control and it is my opinion that he should not be patrolling the streets because he is more of a danger to the citizens of Bernalillo County than he is anything positive,” he said.
In April 2019, special prosecutor Clint Wellborn, district attorney for the 7th Judicial District, announced his decision not to file criminal charges against Mora.
He found the state wouldn’t have been able to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the shooting wasn’t justified.
Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca told the Journal on Thursday that New Mexico Counties, which administers self-insurance pools that provide coverage for sheriffs departments, paid all settlements, legal fees and costs.
Bernalillo County’s deductible is $100,000 which has been paid/reimbursed to New Mexico Counties.
Bregman said his office has had a total of $2.6 million in legal settlements against BCSO over the past year.
That included a $700,000 settlement related to the death of Robert Chavez, 66, an innocent bystander who was fatally injured in a 2018 car crash that occurred during a BCSO pursuit of another stolen vehicle.
“My law firm will continue to hold the BCSO responsible for its unconstitutional policies both when it comes to chasing people and when it comes to use of force,” Bregman said.
Bregman also filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the sheriff’s department that resulted in a $49,000 settlement last year.
In that case, a former sheriff’s deputy testified he was retaliated against for giving a sworn deposition that the younger Mora was overly aggressive and had used excessive force as a cadet in training at the academy. And that Mora’s father, the undersheriff, had tried to pull strings at the training academy so his son would graduate.
Sheriff Gonzales has denied any retaliation and the allegation of favoritism toward the younger Mora.