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Claims Filed in Violent Arrest of Woman by Phoenix Police During Traffic Stop

23-year-old Maria Valenzuela after she was arrested by Phoenix police.EXPAND
23-year-old Maria Valenzuela after she was arrested by Phoenix police.
Photo courtesy Wilenchik & Bartness

The Phoenix cop tackles the 23-year-old Hispanic woman, slamming her face into the concrete and pushing her against his patrol car, telling her, "why don't you act like a young lady?"

Her offense? She didn't immediately produce her identification when Officer Michael McGillis asked for it during a traffic stop.

Bodycam footage first published in the Guardian not only shows the rough treatment of Mariah Valenzuela during her January 16 arrest, but also reveals questionable statements by officers, including a lieutenant telling a sergeant by phone to "CYA everybody, cover them," an acronym typically interpreted as "Cover Your Ass."

Now, she's threatening to sue. Brian Foster, the attorney representing Valenzuela, filed notices of claim — the procedural precursor to lawsuits — with both the city of Phoenix and Maricopa County on Monday. She's seeking $2 million in damages from each government respectively.

"Within a matter of seconds he went from zero to 60, grabbed her, banged her against the car, pushed her on the ground, put his body weight on top of her, all because she didn’t have an ID with her,"  Foster told New Times. "It’s really horrific."

New Times attempted to contact Valenzuela, but she declined to comment through James Palestini, a local defense attorney who represents her on the misdemeanor charges stemming from the arrest.

As described in the claim, Valenzuela was driving back home after picking up take-out food from Filberto's Mexican restaurant on North 7th Avenue when Officer McGillis pulled her over for on suspicion of driving in the wrong lane. Both of them parked in a lot outside the Budget Suites Hotel on West Indian School Road, and McGillis approached Valenzuela's car while she exited the vehicle (his body camera footage begins shortly before he pulls her over).

In the footage, McGillis and Valenzuela can be heard saying hello to one another. He asked for her license, to which she responded "I don't have it on me." He asks for other ID and she asks why she's being pulled over. After roughly 10 seconds of additional back-and-forth, he arrests her, eventually taking her to the ground and trying to handcuff her while she's lying face down on the concrete.

Valenzuela screams and asks why he tackled her.

"You're hurting me," she yells. "I did nothing wrong, sir."

McGillis tells her to put her hands behind her back and to "stop."

"I'm asking for your I.D.," he tells her in response to her questions. "You said you didn't have your I.D."

As the claim tells it: "Officer McGillis, while on top of her back side, was demanding she give him her other arm, was manhandling her, pushing her face and body into the concrete and causing further physical injuries... Ms. Valenzuela was unable to provide her other arm as it was trapped underneath her by the weight of Officer McGillis, still holding her phone."

McGillis soon pulls her up and pushes her against a car window, telling her "why don't you act like a young lady?"

"You're manhandling me," she responds. "You slammed my head."

At one point, McGillis, asks, "Why are you acting this way?" To which Valenzuela replies: "Because you're hurting me, sir!"

"He makes that statement after he has been slamming her face and body into the vehicle and after he pushes her down to the concrete ... and she’s screaming like crazy, trying to get attention," Foster said. "And after doing that to her, he lifts her up, shoves her face into the vehicle, and makes the comment 'why don’t you act like a young lady?' It is just reprehensible."

Eventually, Valenzuela is detained in a patrol car. She was booked into jail on alleged charges of felony resisting arrest and a slew of misdemeanors, including failure to comply with an officer, and a DUI for "Impaired to Slightest Degree." In the bodycam footage, McGillis didn't make any mention of her being under arrest for a DUI. Valenzuela told the Guardian that while she had been drinking earlier in the day, she wasn't drunk at the time of the arrest.

"The unnecessary use of force, physical assault and police brutality happened within 24 seconds of Officer McGillis coming into contact with the calm and cooperative Ms. Valenzuela," the claim states. "Ms. Valenzuela is a Hispanic, single mom of two young children, a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, is 5'2" and weighs 98 pounds ... it is hard to understand how a man of that size, who has most likely been trained with respect to appropriate use of force, would need to physically assault, injure and terrorize [her] in this manner to 'restrain' her."

When asked for comment, Phoenix police officials referred New Times to a statement posted on the city's website defending McGillis' conduct.

"Due to Valenzuela failing to provide her identification as she was legally required to do, despite the three opportunities Officer McGillis provided her, the decision was made to place her under arrest for the misdemeanor violation," the statement reads. "Valenzuela immediately became uncooperative and actively resisted the lawful arrest by pulling away and refusing to place her hands behind her back. This constituted a violation of Arizona Revised Statute 13-2508, which is a class 4 felony. Valenzuela began screaming and yelling, and would not cooperate with the arrest. Since she was physically resisting arrest, for the safety of both the Officer and Valenzuela, he took her to to the ground. While on the ground, he requested backup while pleading with her to give him her hands. She refused."

"Officer McGillis remained calm and professional, and continually tried to get Valenzuela to calm down and stop resisting the arrest. During this time, he told her why she was under arrest and why she was originally stopped, but Valenzuela continued to argue," the statement continues. "When Officer McGillis thought she had calmed down enough to stand up, he helped her up and they began walking towards a vehicle when she began yelling again. Officer McGillis pushed her against her car to stop her from resisting again."

"The Phoenix Police Department Professional Standards Bureau evaluated the body worn camera and other evidence, and determined there was no violation of policy on behalf of Officer McGillis," the statement adds. "Officer McGillis has no other sustained allegations of misconduct within the last five years."

In additional body camera footage, a sergeant who arrived on scene can be heard discussing the incident with a lieutenant by phone. The sergeant says that Valenzuela was "super emotional" and "super Looney Tunes," and that she was in custody for a "DUI."

The lieutenant tells the sergeant: "We're going to get her checked out. Let's make sure we get photos ... we'll do the injured prisoner slash use-of-force just to CYA [cover your ass] ourselves."

The lieutenant also asks him: "Is she alleging any misconduct or anything is she just complaining about the injuries?"

The sergeant replies that Valenzuela thinks she was "kind of manhandled" and that she's "super all over the place."

"Review the camera, make sure it looks good to go, and then we'll do the use of force, just to CYA everybody, cover them," the lieutenant says.

Later, the sergeant can be heard telling someone in a nearby vehicle, "just 100 percent CYA everybody, ok?"

Foster called the comments "extraordinary."

"I think they realized that this was a problem, that things have not been handled the way they should have been," he said. "They essentially told everyone involved to circle their wagons and cover their asses. That came from both the sergeant and the lieutenant."

In the online statement regarding the incident, the police department didn't dispute the notion that "CYA" stands for "Cover Your Ass." Instead, it framed the comments as the officers stating that they would fill out additional paperwork for the incident.

"On one of the body-worn cameras, a supervisor is heard instructing his officers to 'CYA'. That comment refers to filling out additional paperwork to document the events surrounding the arrest. In this case, the supervisor was directing the officers to complete a Use of Force Report. Policy does not require filling out a Use of Force Report when a suspect who is resisting arrest is taken to the ground," the statement reads. "The supervisor in this case felt it was appropriate to document the injuries on a Use of Force Report even though one was not necessarily required."

The claim filed with Maricopa County centers on the fact that Valenzuela was charged by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office with felony resisting arrest — a charge that Foster argues is are outrageous, given the circumstances depicted in the video.

"Given the body camera, it was an abuse of process and malicious prosecution for Ms. Valenzuela to be charged with felony resisting arrest and other charges," the claim states.

Foster told New Times that the day after he filed the claims on July 13, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office offered to drop the resisting arrest charge.

"It is something that should have been done in January and it’s a case where the charges should never have been brought," he said. "There was a complete breakdown at the county attorney’s office in its decision to prosecute this woman with a felony charge."

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Jennifer Liewer, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, wrote in an email to New Times that they decided to drop the felony resisting arrest charge after reviewing the video of the incident.

"Several weeks ago, after reviewing the body worn camera footage, it was the decision of prosecutors that, with the additional video evidence, the case did not warrant a felony charge," she wrote.

Nickolas Valenzuela, a spokesperson for the City Prosecutor's Office, which filed the misdemeanor charges against Mariah, told New Times that the city had dropped the charge of DUI-Blood Alcohol Concentration of .08 or more. However, the other charges still stand.

"The other six are still pending. We can’t comment on what’s going to happen with those," he said.

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