Domestic Violence Civil Suit Settles for $1 MillionJuly 5, 2002
by Katherine P. Califa, NOW Communications Intern
Women's rights supporters celebrated last month when Sonoma County, Calif. agreed to pay $1 million to the family of a woman who was killed by her estranged husband after repeatedly reporting his physical abuse to the local sheriff's department.
The settlement was announced on the second day of testimony in the San Francisco federal trial that charged the local sheriff's department with failing to enforce a restraining order.
The case was brought by the family of Maria Teresa Macias, a 36-year-old mother of three who immigrated to California from Mexico and was shot and killed in April 1996 in Sonoma, Calif. by her estranged husband, Avelino Macias, who then committed suicide.
In the year leading up to her murder, the family's attorneys say, Maria Teresa pursued every available avenue to protect herself and children from Macias' physical, emotional and sexual abuse: She repeatedly called the police, obtained a restraining order, attended counseling sessions and kept meticulous records documenting his abuse. She brought her mother and sister into the country to live near the family and took English classes. She even went to Child Protection Services, who placed her children in foster care because she couldn't keep Macias away from them.
The lawsuit alleges that in the last three months of her life, Maria Teresa approached the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department 18 different times and requested protection. The Sheriff's Department ignored her petitions and never once arrested, cited or charged Macias for violating the restraining order, a felony in California. Attorneys for Maria Teresa's family report that Sonoma County sheriff's officers did not write information down, respond to calls for help or file appropriate reports. When Maria Teresa who spoke little English gave the sheriff's office written documentation of her husband's abuse, the documents were never read or translated into English.
Additionally, the family's lawsuit alleges that Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff Mark Lopez, the deputy most frequently called on to respond to Maria Teresa's requests for help, was himself the subject of two restraining orders for domestic violence.
Immediately following Maria Teresa's murder, her family filed a $15 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff's department, Maria Teresa Macias v. Sonoma County Sheriff, claiming the department had denied her constitutional right to equal protection under the law. In 1999, a federal district court judge dismissed the case, citing legal precedent that police cannot be held responsible for another person's violence. The Macias family appealed the decision.
In July 2000, in a unanimous decision, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals reversed the 1999 decision and ruled that women, specifically victims of sexual and domestic violence, have a constitutional right to non-discriminatory police services. This progressive decision provides a constitutional basis for holding police departments accountable for inferior police protection.
Historically, U.S. police have had complete discretion to investigate rape and domestic violence claims, and victims who felt their cases were handled inadequately had no means of compensation.
County supervisor Paul Kelley said the county agreed to the settlement which did not include any admission of wrongdoing simply to "bring closure to the case," according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Women's rights leaders said the settlement sends a message to law enforcement officials and domestic abusers.
"In the last few months of her life, Maria Teresa told her mother that she didn't want other women to suffer as she had, she wanted them to be heard," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "This settlement shows that law enforcement cannot get away with denying equal protection under the law to victims of domestic violence."
For more information on this case, and for information in Spanish, please visit the Women's Justice Center at www.justicewomen.com.
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