New Mexico lawyer Arlon Stoker calls the case the most obvious example of mistaken identity, color blindness or just plain meanness, and most likely all of the above.
Stoker has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque on behalf of an elderly Native American couple and their three grandchildren who were pulled over at gunpoint in March by six New Mexico law enforcement officers searching for a car thief. The stop took place near the small community of Farmington.
The suit alleges not only police abuse of power, but deprivation of rights, unreasonable use of force, false arrests, unlawful search and wrongful detention and assault and battery.
Stoker told the Los Angeles Times that nothing about the stop adds up.
Authorities were searching for a suspect, possibly a Latino male about 30 years old, wanted for breaking into a school building and stealing a brown 2008 Chevrolet Impala with government plates and several laptops, he said.
Mike was driving with his elderly wife and three grandchildren, ages 11, 13 and 15, in a 2012 blue Chevrolet Malibu. Stoker says it was obvious that the family had nothing to do with the crime. But the Farmington Police Department and San Juan County Sheriff's Office both found no wrongdoing in detaining the family.
"I wish I could say that race had nothing to do with this incident, but I can’t," Stoker told The Times. "The suspect’s car had front damage when he crashed through the school gates, and police knew this. The victim’s car was so new it still had dealer plates. It was in perfect condition, not to mention the wrong color, year and model."
Stoker said in the lawsuit that Sheriff’s Deputy Terry McCoy followed the Mikes for several miles before, with five other officers, performing a felony stop, in which police use their vehicles for cover and use their speaker system to give suspects orders.
Once the car stopped, officers ordered the family out of the car one by one and placed them in patrol cars. The grandparents and the 13-year-old were handcuffed, according to the lawsuit.
“The strangest thing is that McCoy’s personal car is the exact year and model of the car police were looking for,” Stoker told the Times. “He knew the differences.”
Stoker said that on the police videotape of the stop, an officer can be heard saying, 'This obviously isn’t the right car' but McCoy nonetheless starts to search the victim’s car.
"Meanwhile, you have this frail old gentleman, who suffers from diabetes and kidney disease kneeling on the cold ground at gunpoint,” Stoker said. “The police recording equipment captures the 11-year-old girl praying in the backseat of the patrol car. She’s praying to Jesus to protect her and her family from the officers."
Later that day, authorities arrested David Zepeda, 31, after he crashed the stolen vehicle nearby. Zepeda pleaded guilty in August to multiple felonies and is in custody.
Stoker also named McCoy in the lawsuit, which says McCoy has a history of violating the rights of Native Americans and the elderly. Sheriff's officials objected to that allegation against McCoy. They said he has no history of violations and has never been charged with any crimes.
"That sounds like [expletive]," one deputy told the Farmington Times. “We don't retain deputies that violate civil rights.”
Stoker says the family remains traumatized.
"The kids still get upset every time they see a police badge," he said.