Veteran Injured by Forest Ranger Can't Collect Settlement Money

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There was little doubt a U.S. Forest Service officer on patrol near Albuquerque had used excessive force that day in late May 2014.

Witnesses at the Juan Tomas Campground east of Albuquerque heard Adam Griego's head being slammed repeatedly on the hood of a Forest Service truck as he stood handcuffed, his hands behind his back.

Evidence in the case showed that the officer, David Chavez, was later fired and prosecuted and pleaded guilty to deprivation of civil rights under color of law in 2015. A cellphone video taken by another camper who documented the incident was seized by the Forest Service officer and never put into evidence.

In 2018, a U.S. district judge in Albuquerque awarded damages totaling nearly $600,000 to Griego, a Gulf War veteran and Purple Heart recipient, and his fellow camper, Elijah Haukereid, who also was detained that day.

Despite the facts of the case and the judge's ruling, they might never collect a penny.

Chavez had all his debts discharged after filing for bankruptcy. And the federal government won't pay up.

Under New Mexico law, "people injured through the unconstitutional and tortious conduct of law enforcement must be paid by the public entity for whom they are employed," according to a letter sent this week to New Mexico's congressional delegation by attorneys for Griego and Haukereid.

"Shockingly, there is no federal statute that requires that the federal government pay for the criminal and unconstitutional acts of their law enforcement officers. This is a travesty and an outrage," says the letter, from Albuquerque attorneys Louren Oliveros and Timothy Padilla.

The attorneys said they knew when they brought the civil rights case that there wasn't a statutory obligation for the U.S. government to pay any judgment rendered in the case.

"However, it has been our experience that the judgment would be paid as an act of discretion," Oliveros told the Journal last week. "In this case, the government is exercising its discretion to not pay the judgment and to leave Adam and Elijah high and dry."

Oliveros and Padilla are asking Congress to enact a statute to require the United States to pay a court-ordered judgment when federal officers violate the constitutional rights of an American citizen.

Further, they are asking the New Mexico congressional delegation to personally intervene with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to force his agency to pay the judgment in this case.

The Forest Service, which didn't return requests for comment, is part of the Department of Agriculture.

Army veteran

Griego, now in his 30s, was in the U.S. Army from 2008 to 2013, serving in combat in Iraq in 2009-2010 and Afghanistan in 2012-2013. He survived about five roadside bomb explosions, two of which resulted in serious head trauma.

U.S. District Judge Judith Herrera wrote in her 2018 ruling that at the time of the assault at the campground, Griego suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

She said the incident with the forest officer exacerbated his condition. Griego's migraine headaches became more intense and painful; he suffered from blurred vision. His related nausea was amplified.

Herrera wrote that Griego also experienced emotional problems. He became "overwhelmed and hit rock bottom after the assault," she added.

After once considering a career in a sheriff's department, Griego became distrustful of all law enforcement, and his family feared for his life if he had another encounter with the law, Herrera wrote.

Violent arrest

Griego was camping with a group of friends when Chavez arrived at the site in his Forest Service vehicle and asked Griego if he had entered by a road that was closed to the public. Griego replied "yes," and "Chavez used expletives and put Griego in handcuffs." When Griego asked about the reason for his arrest, the officer responded with profanity.

According to Herrera's ruling, after hitting Griego's head on the hood of the Forest Service truck, the officer twice slammed Griego's head into the metal part above the door on the passenger side of the government vehicle before shoving him inside. Griego was confined there for two to three hours while a police K-9 in the vehicle threatened him and bounced off the plexiglass partition separating them.

The heat inside the vehicle made Griego dizzy and agitated, and the federal officer refused to open a window despite Griego's requests.

When Chavez saw Haukereid recording him on a cellphone, he slapped the phone out of the man's hand, drew his Taser and locked him up in another officer's car for two hours, Herrera wrote.

Chavez, who couldn't be reached last week, pleaded guilty to deprivation of civil rights under color of law and was sentenced to one year of probation with three months of home detention and community service.

Chavez didn't appear at a trial before Herrera in January 2018.

In his plea agreement in 2016, Chavez said, "When I slammed (Griego) onto the hood, I knew it was wrong but I acted anyway and I did so in my capacity as a law enforcement officer. A.G. was handcuffed and compliant, and he did not pose a threat at any time."

Herrera wrote in her ruling that "Officer Chavez used the force of his whole body to smash Griego down. Griego was stunned from the impact. His head was throbbing and he heard ringing. Another camper, Sonia Jaramillo, heard the impact of Griego's head hitting metal from 10 to 15 feet away."

The cellphone seized by Chavez was "supposed" to be put into evidence, the judge's ruling said.

Instead, Haukereid's cellphone tracking showed that the phone was moved from the campsite to Los Lunas, where Chavez lived.

Later, the cellphone "alerted Haukereid that the officer was trying to unlock his phone and access its contents, namely the video," Herrera wrote. The reasonable inference from this is that Chavez was attempting to destroy the video evidence of his actions, she added.

Moreover, Chavez and another Forest Service officer who had arrived on the scene illegally searched the vehicles and belongings of all eight campers at the scene. The forest rangers issued numerous citations to all the campers, which were ultimately dismissed.

Herrera wrote that Haukereid and Griego, being unarmed and nonviolent, posed very little threat to the Forest Service officers at the scene.

Besides using a "high level of force" to slam the Army veteran's head onto the hood of the truck, Chavez also confined him in a hot car with no water for several hours and terrorized him with a violent police dog, the judge found.

She awarded Griego damages totaling $450,000 and Haukereid $140,000.

This article is written by Colleen Heild from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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