Court rejects lawsuit filed over man’s death

A federal appeals court upheld an earlier verdict in the case of two Brownsville residents who filed a lawsuit against the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department after a prisoner escaped from custody, broke into the plaintiff’s home, and shot the second plaintiff’s husband to death.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed an opinion issued by U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez, Jr. in December 2018 that resulted in the case’s dismissal.

Plaintiffs Maria Mercedes Cancino (the wife of the victim) and Blanca Puga (the homeowner), filed suit against Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio and his employee Antonio Tella in both their individual and official capacities as a result of the incident.

According to court documents, the Sheriff’s Department held Michael Diaz Garcia in custody as he awaited sentencing in June 2017. Garcia had been found guilty by a jury on four charges, including the burglary of a habitation and three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Roughly 11 days before Garcia was to be sentenced, he was transported to a dental appointment by Officer Tella.

This was in violation of Cameron County policy, which required at least two officers to supervise the transport of local inmates to and from the detention facility, according to the opinion issued by Rodriguez.

The summary of events stated that in the clinic’s parking lot, Garcia overpowered Tella and escaped with his handgun and service belt. He swam across a body of water and then forcibly entered a home, where he encountered Mario Martinez, his wife Maria Mercedes Cancino, and Julian Puga, a minor.

Martinez attempted to calm Garcia down, prompting Garcia to use Tella’s handgun to shoot Martinez, who later died of his wounds. Garcia then stole a car that was at the home and fled.

The incident resulted in a high-speed chase that ended in San Benito, where officers fatally injured Garcia in a shootout, according to the document.

Cancino and Puga brought their claims under the Texas Tort Claims Act, divided into two counts of a “state-created danger” and a violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights as Martinez’ right to life and bodily integrity were violated as a result of the state’s negligence in transporting Garcia to the dentist.

The Fifth Circuit upheld Rodriguez’s ruling on Tuesday on the grounds that the plaintiffs failed to establish that Lucio and Tella were aware of “an immediate danger facing a known victim.”

The court stated that although the Sheriff’s Department knew of the danger that Garcia could pose to residents in the geographical proximity of the dental office if he were to escape, they could not have known of any danger specific to the victims themselves, invalidating the state-created danger theory.

Additionally, the court upheld a portion of Rodriguez’s ruling citing past cases in which the court has not once adopted the state-created danger theory, even when argued thoroughly.

“Under the state-created danger doctrine, which has been accepted by some of our sister circuits, ‘when state actors knowingly place a person in danger, the Due Process Clause renders them accountable for the foreseeable injuries resulting from their conduct,” the court wrote.

The Fifth Circuit cited a case in which a defendant police officer knew that a driver who caused an accident had a history of driving while intoxicated and observed the driver operating a vehicle suspiciously on the night of the accident, but decided not to investigate.

“Accordingly the Defendant’s decisions, while ‘ultimately tragic,’ were ‘not sufficiently willful and targeted toward a specific harm’ to fall within the ambit of the state-created danger theory.”