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Dalton v. Reynolds.

No. 19-2047.  D.N.M. Judge Tymkovich. Murder–Suicide—Disparate Treatment of Domestic Violence Victims—42 USC § 1983 Claims—Equal Protection—Qualified Immunity.

June 28, 2021


This case arose after a Silver City Police Department (SCPD) officer, Contreras, murdered his ex-girlfriend, Bascom, and then committed suicide. In 1999, before Contreras was a police officer, Bascom had reported to the SCPD that Contreras threatened to shoot her at gunpoint. He admitted to pushing her and was charged with battery on a household member. Nonetheless, SCPD hired Contreras as a police officer in 2001.

In March 2016, Bascom’s son called 911 to report that Bascom and Contreras were arguing and that Contreras threatened to shoot himself. Three officers responded but acted contrary to SCPD training and policy by (1) allowing Contreras, who had clearly consumed alcohol recently, to drive his truck into the driveway; (2) not interviewing Bascom’s son; and (3) changing the call classification from domestic disturbance to welfare check. Contreras was not charged as a result of this incident. About two weeks later, Bascom reported that Contreras harassed her coworker. No officer documented or otherwise investigated the incident. A few days later Contreras was promoted to acting captain and received a raise.

In April 2016, while on duty and in an SCPD patrol car, Contreras forced Bascom off the road by swerving in front of her. He took her cell phone when she tried to call 911. He then went to the coworker’s home and threatened him. While one officer took Bascom’s statement at the station, the police chief met with Contreras in Bascom’s home and placed him on administrative leave. The chief took Contreras’s service weapon but did not inquire whether Contreras had any other weapons. Later that day, Bascom called 911 to report that Contreras was following her again, including on her way to the domestic violence shelter. When she left the shelter, Contreras followed Bascom and shot and killed her in front of her friend’s house before turning the gun on himself.

Bascom’s estate sued SCPD, certain police officers, and the Town of Silver City alleging, among other things, violation of Bascom’s right to equal protection in violation of 42 USC § 1983. The officers moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion.

On interlocutory appeal, the officers argued that the district court erred in denying them qualified immunity because it was not clearly established that their conduct violated Bascom’s equal protection rights. The Tenth Circuit first analyzed whether the facts found by the district court support an equal protection claim. Here, Bascom was treated differently than similarly situated domestic violence victims because her assailant was a police officer with whom she had been in a domestic relationship; the officers offered no rational reason to decline police protection to certain domestic violence victims but afford it to others; and the officers’ discriminatory intent can be inferred from their facially discriminatory domestic violence policies, as they admittedly had one policy for victims whose assailants are SCPD officers and one for everyone else. Accordingly, a reasonable jury could conclude that officers violated Bascom’s right to equal protection of the law.

Second, clearly established law requires a US Supreme Court or Tenth Circuit decision on point or clearly established weight of authority from other courts finding the law to be as plaintiff maintains. At the time of the conduct here, it was clearly established in the Tenth Circuit that it is unlawful to provide less police protection to a sub-class of domestic violence victims.

The denial of summary judgment was affirmed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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