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[whitespace] Deadly inaction? Teresa Macias' family gets a new day in court against the county.

Photograph by Janet Orsi

Case Study

Appeals court reinstates Macias lawsuit

By Greg Cahill

SUPPORTERS of a $15 million lawsuit against the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department by the family of a woman slain on the streets of El Verano in a domestic violence dispute are claiming victory after a federal court last week reinstated the case. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on July 20 sent the landmark wrongful-death lawsuit back to the U.S. District Court. The family of Teresa Macias now can resume its claim that the Sheriff's Department failed to provide equal protection to the woman after she tried to have her husband, Avelino, arrested for stalking.

For more than a year, Macias had repeatedly sought help from the Sheriff's Department to protect her from Avelino, who she alleged had abused her and her three children. Her diary and public records indicate that Macias called deputies at least 14 times in the last three months of her life, having obtained a restraining order that was subsequently misplaced by deputies.

In 1996, Avelino shot and killed his estranged wife, wounded his mother-in-law, and then committed suicide.

Macias' murder sparked the ire of women's rights groups and prompted a state probe of the way in which the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department and District Attorney's Office handled domestic violence cases. The agencies eventually announced numerous reforms in their practices and policies.

"This victory is of national significance," says Rick Selzer, attorney for the Macias family. "It notifies law enforcement all across the country that they must take their responsibility for victims of violence against women very seriously."

Victims' rights advocate Marie De Santis of Santa Rosa agrees: "This decision now establishes a woman's constitutional right to hold law enforcement agencies legally accountable for their failure to respond to domestic violence complaints. That's huge--that wasn't true before this ruling."

Federal District Judge Lowell Jensen last year tossed out the lawsuit, saying that citizens do not have a constitutional right to expect law enforcement to prevent their murder. The 9th Circuit Court ruled that Jensen erred when he dismissed the case. The new ruling states, "There is a constitutional right . . . to have police services administered in a nondiscriminatory manner--a right that is violated when a state actor denies such protection to disfavored persons."

THE LAWSUIT claims that the Sheriff's Department discriminated against Macias and denied her equal protection under the law by failing to take reports, ignoring evidence, discouraging her from calling again, and other actions.

The Sheriff's Department never arrested Avelino, even though it had a written policy to do so in these types of cases. The lawsuit further states that the Sheriff's Department's indifference to Macias' plight emboldened Avelino in his escalating pattern of stalking, threats, and intimidation, placing Macias and her children at greater risk.

The lawsuit maintains that the Sheriff's Department's disregard for Macias' endangerment reflected a departmental policy and custom of discrimination against women, against victims of domestic violence, and against Latinos. The suit alleges that this denial of Macias' 14th amendment right to equal protection under the law led directly to her murder.


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From the July 27-August 2, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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