The family of an unarmed 40-year-old woman who was shot up inside her car during a traffic stop last summer is suing Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, Maricopa County, and a deputy involved in the incident, alleging excessive force and police misconduct.
The woman, Melonee Duval, was driving her red Dodge pickup in the northwest Valley city of El Mirage on the evening of June 19, 2019, when the shooting occurred. Riding with her were two passengers: 16-year-old Sara Torres, who was sitting in the back seat, and Ernesto Izaguirre, who was in the passenger seat. None of them were armed. An arrest warrant was issued for Izaguirre the previous month, and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Fugitive Apprehension Task Force — a special police unit that uses unmarked vehicles, tactical gear, and "high-powered weaponry," including automatic rifles such as M4s and M16s to detain fugitives — moved to arrest him that day. At the time, Izaguirre faced charges including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and shoplifting, according to news reports. FBI agents were also reportedly involved in the arrest, according to the filing.
Authorities have been tight-lipped about the incident ever since. In the complaint filed in Arizona U.S. District Court, local attorneys including Scott Ambrose and Shiloh Hoggard say that the MCSO has so far refused to release information or records about the incident to the family.
As the lawsuit tells it, Duval was stopped at a red light when four unmarked law enforcement vehicles pinned Duval's truck from all four sides. Deputies quickly approached the truck with their weapons drawn and lights pointed into Duval's face as she sat behind the wheel. Notably, the officers did not use any red and blue police lights to identify their vehicles when they barricaded Duval's truck, the filing states.
"Since Defendants’ vehicles were all unmarked, the occupants of Duval’s pickup could not identify Defendants as law enforcement," the filing states. "Due to Defendants’ barricading the Duval pickup, occupants were prevented from hearing any verbal warning or identification, had one been given."
That's when the deputies opened fire — without "warning or provocation," the filing states. Bullets flew through the driver's side window, the front windshield, and the rear passenger window. Duval was shot at least four times, with two bullets hitting her face.
"Without justification, and in an unlawful, unjustified abuse of excessive force, Defendants began shooting high powered firearms into Ms. Duval’s vehicle. Ms. Duval was shot numerous times in the head and body," the filing states. "Ms. Duval posed no threat to Defendants and nobody in her car was armed with a weapon of any kind."
Duval was taken to Banner Boswell Medical Center before being airlifted to Banner Thunderbird Hospital. After 10 days in the hospital, she died on June 29, 2019, from her injuries.
In their lawsuit, which was filed on June 17, 2020, Duval's family alleges that the defendants committed excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution, gross negligence, assault and battery, and are liable for Duval's wrongful death. The filing calls for a jury trial and damages.
Norma Gutierrez-Deorta, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, declined to comment on the lawsuit. The FBI's Phoenix field office didn't return a message.
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The filing also alleges that the task force involved in the incident routinely uses the "highest level of force" when executing arrest warrants, "without regard to the level of risk posed by the suspect."
"Defendants have a policy, practice or custom of disregarding the risk of injury posed to innocent bystanders in creating tactical plans for executing arrest warrants," the lawsuit reads. "In considering the level of force Defendants deemed necessary for Izaguirre’s apprehension, Defendants were extremely reckless and deliberately indifferent to human life by using a tactical plan that placed Melonee Duval in an extremely dangerous position."
The lawsuit also notes that the plaintiffs "anticipate" amending the complaint to include the involved FBI agents as defendants.