CINCINNATI (AP) – The family of a drunken man picked up by Ohio police officers and dropped off at a Taco Bell before he was fatally struck by a car has sued over his death, accusing authorities of racial discrimination and putting their loved one in danger as part of a "perverse joke" about his Mexican heritage.
The family of 22-year-old Uriel Juarez-Popoca filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Delaware County Sheriff's Office, several of the agency's deputies and an officer with the Ohio State Highway Patrol on Jan. 8. It seeks unspecified damages.
An attorney for the patrolman said the discrimination allegations are ludicrous and that the officers gave Juarez-Popoca "a major break" by letting him go, especially considering that his legal status in the country was in question.
The Cincinnati lawyer representing Juarez-Popoca's family, prominent civil-rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, said that proceeds from any settlement in the lawsuit or a jury trial would go to the wife, two children and parents of Juarez-Popoca, who live just south of Mexico City and had become financially dependent on remittance checks they received from Juarez-Popoca, who worked various jobs.
Gerhardstein declined to comment on whether Juarez-Popoca was living legally in the U.S.
It's undisputed that on the night of July 28, 2012, Juarez-Popoca was driving drunk on Interstate 71 in Sunbury, about 25 miles north of Columbus, when he pulled over in a grass median.
Deputies responding to calls about a possible drunk driver found Juarez-Popoca, who spoke very little English, sitting inside his truck, clearly intoxicated.
At that point, the lawsuit says that the deputies should have followed standard protocol and given Juarez-Popoca a blood-alcohol test, and then either detained him or turned him over to a family member or friend pending charges.
Instead, they dropped him off at a Taco Bell restaurant about 5 miles away.
Soon after, Juarez-Popoca was killed by a car while walking along a nearby four-lane highway.
"This stands out as a truly outrageous failure by local law enforcement to do their basic duty of holding people safely," Gerhardstein told The Associated Press. "It's just a really sick joke. A tragic joke."
Police said at the time that they dropped Juarez-Popoca off at the Taco Bell expecting him to call for a ride.
The lawsuit says that deputies placed Juarez-Popoca in obvious danger by leaving him at the fast-food restaurant along a highway and failed to take proper action after receiving numerous calls about him from the store manager and drivers along the highway during a 50-minute period.
Sam Shamansky, the attorney representing the Ohio state patrolman named in the lawsuit, said that Juarez-Popoca's death was a tragedy but that authorities were not discriminating against him.
"There's no discrimination here," he said. "If you ask me, it could just as easily be said that deputies were giving him a major break by not taking him to jail, maybe in order to not have discriminatory actions taken against him, vis-a-vis deportation. As an observer trying to be independent, I would suggest that's way more plausible than that they were discriminating against him because he's Hispanic."
Two deputies, Christopher Hughes and Derek Beggs, were fired over the matter. Patrolman Sean Carpenter also was fired but won an appeal of that decision and was reinstated.
All three were charged criminally in the matter, with various outcomes.
A jury found Beggs guilty of dereliction of duty and he was fined $500. A jury also found Carpenter guilty of dereliction of duty but that was overturned by an appeals court, which found that "no rational trier of fact could have found that (he) acted negligently."
Hughes pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of failure to assist a law enforcement officer and was ordered to pay $20.
An attorney for Hughes and Beggs did not return a call for comment.
In letters firing the two deputies, Delaware County Sheriff Russ Martin wrote that they had showed "a lack of maturity and professionalism."
"A fundamental duty as a law enforcement officer should be the preservation of life and inherent in that is the obligation to put a citizen in a better place than where he or she was found — even if that place is in custody for their own safety or the safety of others," Martin wrote.