Friday, September 26, 2008
When Officers Go Too Far
By Joline Gutierrez Krueger
Journal Staff Writer
It was the second time in the dead of that cold autumn night that Angela Saiz woke her husband, Mark, because somebody was pounding on their door.
The first time, it was urgent knocking, but no one was there.
This time, it sounded like someone kicking in the front door, determined to break in.
Twice in the last three months, thieves had broken into the insurance office of Mark Saiz's father, which is adjacent to their home on Sarah NW. Maybe, they thought, the thieves had returned.
Maybe it was juvenile thugs roaming the North Valley.
Maybe it was worse.
Mark Saiz, clad in T-shirt and boxers, grabbed his 12-gauge shotgun from the closet. Through a window, he saw movement in the darkness outside, the black blur of intruders scurrying behind the garage.
He opened the door, fired a warning blast of birdshot into the sky and shouted for the intruders to go away.
"I was so scared, very scared," Angela Saiz says.
But what the Saizes say happened next that October 2006 night was scarier still.
For the next three hours, Mark Saiz says the intruders humiliated, intimidated and emasculated him. He contends he was handcuffed and forced to the ground, punched twice in the face while restrained. He was called a "vigilante son of a bitch" and other angry vulgarities. He was pulled barefoot across his graveled yard. His shoulder was dislocated.
Worst of all, Saiz, 49, says he was helpless to protect his family and property.
All the while, he had no idea what the intruders wanted.
Then Saiz, a gentle and proud man who had never incurred more than a traffic offense, was tossed into the Metropolitan Detention Center on four felony counts of aggravated assault against a peace officer.
Yup. The four intruders that surreal night were Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies.
This week in a federal courtroom in Albuquerque, Saiz and the deputies squared off in the latest legal battle over whether homeowners have the right to protect their domiciles even if it means pulling the trigger — and even if the invaders are law enforcement agents.
Saiz's federal lawsuit accuses three deputies (one deputy, Chris Romero, was dismissed from the case at the end of trial) of violating his civil rights by their use of unreasonable and excessive force.
The deputies, including the alleged potty-mouthed pugilist, are also accused of battery.
Saiz testified that the deputies had not identified themselves as law enforcement agents. There had been no squad cars visible, no lights or sirens.
Once he knew, however, Saiz says he complied with all their commands.
It didn't matter. He had already incurred the wrath normally reserved for cop killers, baby rapers and defense attorneys.
"It's not enough I have to be worried about the criminals out there, I have to be worried about being shot by you!" one deputy shouts in a recording from a deputy's belt tape.
Deputies David Priemazon and Jason Foster and then-trainee Matthew Ray blamed their agitated moods on their own fears that night.
"I was very angered, very upset and very scared," Priemazon, the deputy accused of punching Saiz, testified. "I was almost shot."
Priemazon, who cops to the vulgar diatribe, says he had seen the glint of Saiz's glasses in the dark house and the shotgun barrel aimed straight at Romero's head.
The deputies ran for cover, but Priemazon was trapped by the "fatal funnel" of a walled courtyard with no defensive cover. He swears the gunfire came so close to his right shoulder that he had initially believed he was hit.
But no small projectiles found in the birdshot slug — the same stuff Dick Cheney fired in the face of his hunting buddy — were recovered from the walls where Priemazon had cowered, as one might have expected had Saiz aimed at him and not the air.
Maybe that's why a grand jury refused to indict Saiz on the felony assault charges but merely for negligent use of a deadly weapon, a petty misdemeanor.
That charge evaporated, too, when the District Attorney's Office asked to dismiss the case "for the reason that after reviewing the evidence the state believes that it is not in the state's best interest to pursue the indicted charge."
Priemazon, now a violent crimes detective, denied the punches. Ray, so terrified that he considered quitting the force, denied dislocating Saiz's arm. Lt. Jason Katz, the deputies' supervisor that night, denied telling the Saiz family that what had happened had been one big misunderstanding.
You remember Katz, who two months before the Saiz incident was one of three deputies accused of plucking Al Unser Sr. from his vehicle and tossing him face-first into a patch of goatheads during another one of those big misunderstandings.
What happened at the Saiz home had not been a misunderstanding but a mistake from the start, launched as a welfare check on a possible domestic violence victim who had made a 911 call on a cell phone that abruptly ended.
The phone number had been traced to Sarah NW, but, oops, she didn't live there anymore.
On Thursday, after just 1 1/2 hours of deliberation, jurors sided with the deputies, apparently convinced that whatever brutality had been rained on the Saizes that night was part of the job.
No death, no foul, no money.
The job of a law enforcement officer is dangerous and tough, and we've attended too many funerals for too many men and woman killed in the line of duty to think otherwise.
But when justified caution gives way to the unbridled bravado of the badge, especially in the sanctity of our own homes, it harms not just the public but the image of those who truly protect and serve without provoking and savaging.
You can reach Joline at 823-3603 or firstname.lastname@example.org.