Created: 06/24/2014 10:13 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4
Yet again, New Mexico taxpayers may have to assume financial responsibility for law enforcement violating a person’s civil rights. This time, an inmate who suffers seizures said corrections officers handcuffed him, maced him, then beat him while he was face down on a cement floor.
Eric Aguilar, through an attorney, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the New Mexico Corrections Department and two now-former corrections officers, Josh Cordova and Wilfred Sprunk. Sprunk was a lieutenant and Cordova’s supervisor at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas.
Both were fired in late December after the alleged beating occurred in April 2013.
“You don't forfeit your rights when you go to a prison, you're still a human being, you still have rights, [and] you’re still protected under the United States Constitution,” attorney Theresa Hacsi said in an interview with KOB Eyewitness News 4. She’s representing Aguilar.
Cordova initially fought to get his job back. According to transcripts from Cordova’s arbitration hearing, Aguilar got into a verbal altercation with corrections officers and was initially pepper-sprayed. While en route to the prison’s medical facility to have the spray removed, then-Officer Cordova tackled Aguilar – who was still in handcuffs – to the ground and beat him in the head repeatedly. Then-Lieutenant Sprunk initially lied about that encounter, but later confirmed Aguilar’s story.
According to attorney Hacsi, Aguilar was beginning to have the onset of a seizure during the beating.
In the arbitration hearing, the Corrections Department attorneys called the situation “serious.” They further explained that once they have a corrections officer “who begins to physically abuse an inmate, it puts the other officers in a very bad position. No doubt.”
Despite the department’s actions in terminating the officers, it’s stonewalling Hacsi in her pursuit of public records – including video surveillance of the beating and Aguilar’s entire prison file. Hacsi said the file would contain photographs of Aguilar’s injuries and record of how the department initially investigated the two corrections officers.
The department’s attorneys told Hacsi the video and files fall under attorney-client privilege. They said the records are part of a criminal investigation and thus not subject to public inspection.
Hacsi believes the department is trying to hide something.
“I think they are,” she said. “I think that it's never a good sign when our public entities don’t want to tell us what happened.”
For weeks, Hacsi tried to obtain the records. Now, on Monday, she filed another lawsuit against the department – for violating New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act. If a judge agrees with her, the department would have to pay her attorney fees and damages up to $100 per day. And it will have to produce the records.
Aguilar was incarcerated in a burglary case dating back to 2011. Despite his status as a criminal, Hacsi reiterated that prisoners, too, have civil rights afforded to them.
“I think it's really important that our prison system have a safe place for our future community members, because these people will rejoin society,” she said.
Further, she explained how the two corrections officers named in the lawsuit were guilty of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment – a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment.
She criticized the Corrections Department’s employment process.
“I think when you have an atmosphere where you place bullies to watch these people, and to victimize them, that causes a fundamental breakdown in a societal structure and really questions how we punish people in this country,” Hacsi said.
The Corrections Department would not comment on this story since it involves pending litigation.