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City of Denver, Police Officer May Go to Trial Over Shooting of Unarmed Man

A Denver police officer could be headed to trial over an allegation of excessive use of force.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that officer Robert Motyka and the City and County of Denver are potentially liable for injuries suffered by Michael Valdez during a shooting in 2013. Motyka was previously a defendant in a lawsuit over excessive use of force that led to a $1.5 million settlement.

The ruling in the Valdez case effectively sends it toward a jury trial. However, lawyers representing both Motkya and the city intend to appeal the decision.

“We simply don’t agree with Mr. Valdez’s version of events and have not since the beginning. The Denver Police Department fully investigated the incident. The city continues to stand by the conduct of the officers who were involved in this chaotic and dangerous incident, including Sergeant Motyka," the Denver City Attorney's Office said in a statement.

Valdez's legal team rejects the city's decision to appeal. "It could cause quite a delay. From our perspective, it’s a very strong case of liability," says David Maxted, one of Valdez's attorneys.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015, focuses on a January 2013 incident that left Valdez with permanent injuries. Back then, Valdez was at a store when he was told that the infant child of John Montoya, an acquaintance of his, had died that morning, according to the original complaint. Montoya was outside of the store in his truck, so Valdez went out to offer his condolences. Montoya then offered Valdez a ride, which included two other male passengers and a female passenger. According to the complaint, Valdez was unaware that earlier in the day, Montoya had been involved in a domestic violence incident in which he held up his relatives at gunpoint and was wanted by police.

Soon into the ride, police, including Motyka, began pursuing Montoya’s truck; both parties eventually exchanged gunfire. Valdez did not have a gun and maintains that he was hiding on the floor of the truck.

Motyka was directly behind the speeding truck when one of its passengers shot at him multiple times, and one of the bullets hit his shoulder. He pulled over to assess his injuries before rejoining the chase.

After Montoya crashed into a tree, Valdez exited the truck with his hands up and got on the ground with his back facing upward. There were no shots fired at this point.

In his order denying the motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Judge Richard P. Matsch notes that there are multiple versions of what happened next. In the motion, Matsch provided a "version of events that a reasonable jury could find drawing all inferences in favor of Valdez."

Motyka arrived at the scene and fired off six or seven rounds, according to Matsch's description. After a pause, he fired again. As soon as John MacDonald, another officer, arrived on the scene, he began shooting in the same direction, firing off six rounds. Matsch notes that Motyka explained the shooting to the police department by saying that the “probable cause is in my shoulder," which Matsch argues is him "acting out of revenge and anger at having been shot."

While Motyka and MacDonald unloaded rounds in the general area of Valdez, who was on the ground, he was shot twice. One bullet, which entered his back, came from Motyka's gun, and it's not clear whose gun discharged the bullet that destroyed his left ring finger. Other bullets were found in the area.

"It is apparent that the area was sprayed with bullets, permitting the inference that the officers were firing without aiming at a clear target," according to Matsch.

Matsch says Motyka was in extreme pain from his wound, angry that he had been shot and began shooting "without making any effort to determine whether there was any immediate threat to him or others as the occupants of the cab came out."

Another officer at the scene testified that he did not begin shooting because he did not see an immediate threat upon arriving.

Judge Matsch agrees that there was probable cause to arrest everyone who had been in the truck. But he pushes back against Motyka and MacDonald's claim that there was probable cause to use deadly force, since there was a clear lull in the action and no immediate threat.

Motyka claimed that he saw Valdez with a gun, but Matsch points out that Motyka's testimony has been "sufficiently challenged" and its veracity can be determined at a jury trial.

Valdez was taken to the hospital, where he had to be resuscitated. The bullet that entered his back injured his spine, and his finger had to be amputated. He was then charged with fifteen criminal counts, including attempted first-degree murder, for the shootout, and four counts related to Montoya holding up his relatives at gunpoint, even though Valdez never used a gun and wasn't involved in Montoya's previous crime. Valdez spent over two months in jail before Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey dismissed all the charges.

The original complaint filed by Valdez that kicked off the lawsuit alleges that these charges were fabricated as part of a coverup. It specifically accuses Motyka and other officers of excessive use of force and constitutional violations of due process.

The Denver City Attorney's Office has been fighting Valdez in court since the original complaint was filed in 2015. All other officers involved in the chase and shooting have been cleared.

In the April ruling, Matsch cleared MacDonald of possible liability because it's unclear if it was his bullet that wounded Valdez's finger. Valdez attorney Maxted disagrees with the decision but doesn't know if he'll appeal it.

Matsch also ruled that the City and County of Denver could be found liable, since Manager of Safety Ashley Kilroy may have erroneously concluded that Motyka "acted in accordance with the law, the Department's policies and their training." The Manager of Safety has said that his conclusions were consistent with those of the district attorney's office, the chief of police and the Office of the Independent Monitor.

As Matsch notes in his analysis, Montoya, who was shot and killed by police at the scene, may have been an imminent threat, but Valdez was not.

"The city essentially approved and ratified conduct of Motyka and MacDonald," Maxted says about the city's investigation into the shooting and conclusions.

Motyka was part of the 2009 raid of a home that he and other officers mistakenly believed was being occupied by drug dealers. That raid resulted in a jury awarding the home's owners, the Martinez family, $1.8 million. The city appealed and eventually settled for a $1.6 million payout. In that case, the city had also determined that the officers involved in the raid had not been at fault.

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