A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a La Plata County man who claimed the Southern Ute Police Department acted negligently by shooting the man.
Officer Patrick Joseph Backer shot Anthony Martinez in December 2012 after Martinez charged law enforcement with a metal T-ball bat. Martinez, in his lawsuit, claimed the incident was the result of mistaken identity – he thought police officers, who approached his home under the cover of darkness, were people he’d been fighting with earlier in the night who had come back with weapons.
Martinez argued that police were negligent when they turned off the lights on their vehicle as they approached his home. This “stealth approach” caused Martinez to believe he was about to be assaulted, he claimed.
But Senior District Judge Richard Matsch found the officers’ stealth approach was not the “proximate cause” or negligent action that resulted in injury. Matsch wrote in an order this month that Martinez’s charging action was an “intervening cause,” an action that came between the alleged negligence and the injury that either reduces or eliminates the liability of the accused of his injury.
Martinez was more negligent when he left his house to confront people he assumed were out to hurt him than the Southern Ute Police Department was when it approached the home under the cover of darkness, Matsch wrote. Colorado law restricts people from recovering damages for negligent conduct when the accuser’s negligence is “greater” than the accused, Matsch wrote.
“In short, Martinez’s claim is barred by his own negligence if the police officers were negligent in creating a dangerous circumstance because his negligence was greater than that of the officers’,” Matsch wrote.
Martinez was hosting a party at a house near Ignacio on Dec. 4, 2012, when two of his guests started fighting. One of the aggressors left the party and returned with two others. The three surrounded a man, and Martinez “started fighting to protect him, which turned violent with injuries,” Matsch wrote. Martinez yelled, “let’s get the bats,” and the three aggressors left in a dark-colored SUV.
One of the three who left the house called 911. Two law enforcement officials took statements from the men and took two of them to a hospital for treatment. Police then approached the home Martinez was staying in, with their lights on, and knocked on the front door. No one answered, so they left.
A trainee with the Southern Ute Police Department suggested officers return to the scene a couple of hours later to check on someone in the home who had been hit during the fight. But this time, law enforcement approached with the lights on their vehicles turned off.
Martinez saw a vehicle turn off its lights and assumed the people he had been fighting with had returned. He left the house with his son’s T-ball bat and hid in a clump of bushes in his yard when he saw three dark figures approaching – people who he assumed were there to hurt him. The figures were officers with the Southern Ute Police Department.
Martinez rushed the officers, yelling and holding a bat over his head. Two of the three officers drew their .40-caliber Glock pistols. “What happened next is much disputed,” Matsch wrote.
Martinez said he was blinded by law enforcement’s flashlights and turned to run. He said he heard someone order him to drop the bat but didn’t hear anyone identify themselves as police. One of the officers testified that he announced his presence as law enforcement. Martinez was shot once in the back, shattering a vertebrae.
Prosecutors charged Martinez with felony menacing for charging police officers. After two trials, one that ended in a hung jury, Martinez was acquitted of the charges, Matsch wrote.