RGC settles excessive force case, fails to release information

An excessive force case filed against Rio Grande City and their police department in 2015 came to a close in October after the city and the family that filed the lawsuit reached a settlement.

The details of that settlement agreement are unknown, however, as the city has failed to respond to a request for records in violation of the Texas Public Information Act. The Monitor has therefore filed a complaint against the city with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

The case stemmed from an incident in 2014 when police officers with the Rio Grande City police department immobilized a then 17-year-old girl with a stun gun as she attempted to flee from them.

The parents of Julissa Peña had driven her to the police department on June 30, 2014. At some point a Rio Grande City juvenile officer, Humberto Vela, approached the family’s car but many details of what occurred were under dispute.

What is known is that Vela, at some point, called in a report of a “domestic in progress” and requested assistance, after which Lt. Jose Solis, officer Rosa Salinas, and officer Ana Balderas Ramirez arrived at the scene.

Peña eventually ran off at which point Salinas and Solis chased after her. Solis allegedly ordered Salinas three times to use the stun gun on, and, “without stopping to properly aim, Salinas fired her Taser at Peña,” according to court documents.

The stun gun prongs lodged into her back and scalp, the 5th Circuit opinion stated, and she fell face first, striking the pavement.

Peña said her two front teeth broke when her face hit the floor and claimed other injuries such as lacerations to her chin, cheek and forehead; a minor scar above her upper lip; bruises, burns and cuts to her right arm, both legs and knees and right foot; and lacerations above her left breast that left minor scars.

She also reported experiencing headaches shortly after the incident.

Peña was taken to the hospital to receive treatment for her injuries but upon her discharge, she was taken to jail and booked for evading arrest and resisting arrest.

In August 2015, she sued the city in state district court but the case was moved to federal court in February 2016.

It was there that U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez granted a summary judgment in favor of the city and the officers in March 2019, effectively dismissing the case.

Alvarez made the ruling on the basis of qualified immunity and found that a summary judgment was proper in the case because there was no genuine dispute as to material facts in the case.

But the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and in June 2020 overturned Alvarez’s ruling, arguing that there was a dispute in material fact given the differences in the young woman’s and the officers’ accounts of what happened.

Remanded back to the trial court, the parties appeared again before Alvarez in the fall and during a hearing on Oct. 20, the two sides indicated they were nearing a settlement agreement.

On Oct. 28, they filed a joint motion to dismiss the case as they had reached an agreement.

An attorney for Peña, Mauro F. Ruiz, said she was satisfied with the settlement.

“She was a minor when she was tased,” Ruiz said in an email. “Despite her youth and after several years of litigation, Ms. Pena has a better understanding of the checks and balances in our system of government.”

He added that Peña would always be affected physically and emotionally after being hit with the stun gun and that she hopes there are changes in the future, including strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution.

Peña and her attorneys are bound from publicly disclosing details of the settlement. However, public entities like the city, which would have to pay any settlement amount with taxpayer money, can typically release that information.

Calls and messages to City Attorney Calixtro Villarreal regarding the public information request filed for those details have gone unreturned.