ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The family of a young woman killed in a car crash with an Albuquerque police officer in February has filed a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit, claiming the police department has a “widespread custom and practice” of illegal and unsafe driving by its officers.
The lawsuit names the city, the police department, Chief Ray Schultz and the officer involved, Sgt. Adam Casaus.
It alleges the department ignored Casaus’ “propensity for disregarding traffic laws” when he was hired and kept on the police force — although an attorney representing him said Casaus has no history of reckless driving since he joined the force around 2000 and that traffic citations brought up by the plaintiffs are decades old.
Casaus was driving above the posted speed limit in his department SUV without the siren activated near Paseo del Norte and Eagle Ranch NW in the early morning hours of Feb. 10 when he zoomed through a red light and slammed into a Honda-CRV containing 21-year-old Ashley Browder and her 19-year-old sister, Lindsay, according to an investigation by other local law enforcement agencies.
Ashley was killed in the crash, and Lindsay, who was driving, was seriously injured.
Casaus has been on paid leave since March 26 pending an Internal Affairs investigation that could result in his termination, and he has been charged criminally with vehicular homicide and causing great bodily injury through reckless driving.
The lawsuit, filed May 15 in state District Court in Albuquerque, says neither the city nor the department has “taken appropriate or sufficient steps to curtail this widespread practice of its officers deliberately running red lights or otherwise ignoring traffic laws and the public safety without the justification of a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
City Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry said Tuesday he expects Schultz to make a final determination on Casaus’ job status “in the days ahead.”
As for the allegations in the lawsuit, Perry said in a statement that the city cannot comment on pending litigation.
It alleges the department was negligent in hiring and retaining Casaus because he has a history of traffic violations and because of an “attempted cover-up” into a crash involving a fellow officer.
Casaus, in three incidents between 1994 and 1997, pleaded guilty to driving between 16 and 20 mph over the speed limit, careless driving and not stopping at a stop sign, according to the lawsuit and online court records. Casaus was hired at APD around the year 2000.
John D’Amato, an attorney representing Casaus in the criminal case, said Casaus had no history of reckless driving as an officer, before the Feb. 10 crash. He emphasized that the earlier traffic cases are decades old.
The attorney representing Casaus in the most recent civil case could not be reached for comment.
Casaus was also the subject of a November 2010 citizen police complaint, the suit said.
It was filed by the mother of a girl who was in a car crash involving a different APD officer and three other vehicles on Nov. 10, 2010, near Coal and Princeton. The mother alleged that Casaus failed to mention in his investigation into the crash that his fellow officer was at least partially to blame, according to a copy of the citizen complaint. Witnesses told an accident reconstruction company after the crash that the officer didn’t have his lights or sirens activated during the crash, and investigators guessed that the officer was going two to three times the speed limit.
The complaint said that he failed to conduct a thorough investigation.
The Independent Review Officer and Chief Schultz later ruled that Casaus acted properly because injuries from that crash did not warrant a full APD accident reconstruction; and because, while Casaus conceded immediately that his fellow officer had broken department policy in the crash, he believed that that violation would be dealt with administratively.
As Casaus awaits possible disciplinary action, the Browder family has been frustrated with what it sees as a slow-moving APD Internal Affairs investigation, Ashley Browder’s grandfather, Dannie Serfoss, told the Journal on Tuesday.
Today would have been Ashley Browder’s birthday, Serfoss said.
Casaus “is basically on paid vacation, and today is her birthday,” he said, adding that family members placed a new memorial at the crash site on Tuesday. “We aren’t having a very good birthday party.”
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer Jeff Proctor contributed to this report.