A New Mexico city has agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement deal with the family of a Mexican-American man who died in police custody in February.
The city of Las Cruces has agreed to pay $6.5 million to the family of Antonio Valenzuela, who died during a traffic stop by Las Cruces police, according to a settlement agreement obtained by CNN. Former Las Cruces police officer Christopher Smelser allegedly used a vascular neck restraint on Valenzeula, a maneuver which has since been banned by the department during apprehensions.
Smelser has been charged with second-degree murder and has been fired by the department.
“The parties agreed that the city denies liability for the incident,” the city said in a statement about the civil settlement to CNN.
It continued, “The police department has never authorized, provided training, or implemented a policy that allows the use of choke holds and has prohibited the use. The use of vascular neck restraint, which is not a choke hold, was prohibited by policy by the former chief of police. It is well established law that police officers are already required to intervene in instances where another officer violates a person’s civil rights.”
The development in the case comes as the nation grapples with police actions and policies following the in-custody death in May of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for almost 8 minutes.
Smelser has not yet entered a plea to the charge; the next court appointment in his case is set for September 3, state records show. His lawyer has said Smelser “used a maneuver that was sanctioned by the Las Cruces Police Department during a violent struggle while attempting to take Mr. Valenzuela into custody.”
“Office Smelser regrets the outcome of the incident,” attorney Amy Orlando told CNN in June, when Smelser was first charged with involuntary manslaughter. “However, Mr. Valenzuela had a felony warrant, ran from the police, was under the influence of drugs, had drugs on his person, had a weapon, actively resisted, and violently fought the officers.”
In a statement to CNN on Monday, Orlando and attorney Susana Macias Muñoz said they had not been consulted on the settlement.
“If we would have been, we would have strongly encouraged the City of Las Cruces to wait until after the trial as we are convinced that Christopher Smelser will be exonerated of all charges,” they wrote.
The settlement also calls on the city to consider adopting a series of policies, including racial bias and de-escalation training for Las Cruces police officers and a policy requiring that officers undergo a yearly mental health screening.
“The parties also agreed that the City is not required to adopt all of the proposed policies and agreed that they would be carefully considered,” according to the city’s statement on the settlement.
“Some of the proposed policies are already in place,” the statement notes. The department provides training in use of force, de-escalation and implicit bias, and also posts its annual training report online.
In February, Las Cruces police officers pulled over Valenzuela for a traffic stop and learned he had a warrant for a parole violation, according to the Doña Ana County District Attorney’s Office.
Valenzuela fled on foot and police chased him and deployed a Taser twice “without affecting” him, according to the district attorney’s news release.
Body-camera footage released by authorities appears to show Smelser tackling Valenzuela.
Smelser allegedly used a vascular neck restraint on Valenzuela. Body-camera footage shows the struggle and Smelser was heard saying, “I’m going to f**king choke you out, bro.”
Valenzuela died from “asphyxial injuries due to physical restraint,” and methamphetamine was listed as a significant contributor to his death, the Office of the Medical Investigator ruled.
CNN’s Melissa Alonso, Ralph Ellis and Jennifer Henderson contributed to this report.