Constitutional Law

Judge tosses suit over lawyer's death, finds no due process right to police investigation

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A federal magistrate judge in New Mexico has dismissed a lawsuit claiming Albuquerque police failed to properly investigate the death of a civil rights lawyer who frequently sued the police department.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza said there is no federal due process right to a police investigation into a relative’s death and no fundamental constitutional right to know the cause of a family member’s death, the Albuquerque Journal and the Associated Press report. Garza also said a constitutional claim can’t be asserted on behalf of the lawyer, Mary Han, because an individual’s civil rights can’t be violated after the person has died.

Garza’s order (PDF) also rejected other claims of civil-rights liability, including a deprivation of a right of access to the courts and a conspiracy to violate civil rights. She declined to exercise jurisdiction over a state tort law claim and remanded it to state court.

The suit was brought by the sister and daughter of Han, who was found dead in her car in November 2010 at the age of 53. An autopsy determined the death was a suicide caused by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The suit cites conclusions by the New Mexico attorney general that Albuquerque police mishandled the death scene, and the cause of death should be switched from suicide to undetermined. The suit also notes a finding that unusually high levels of carbon monoxide in Han’s blood were inconsistent with death caused by carbon monoxide in the air, the Associated Press reported last year.

The suit named as defendants former Albuquerque police chief Ray Schultz, former deputy chief Allen Banks, former city attorney Robert Perry and other police officials. At the time of her death, Han had pending litigation against Schultz and Banks.

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