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The Maria Teresa Macias Case

Macias Case Legal History

En Espanol

October 1996 to June 2002

October 1996: Macias Case Filed
The $15 million federal civil rights case of Macias vs. Sonoma County Sheriff's Department claims that the Sheriff's Department repeatedly denied Maria Teresa Macias' constitutional right to equal protection in its response to Teresa's more than 22 calls for help before she was finally murdered by her physically and sexually violent husband. The suit claims that the Sheriff's Department discriminated against Teresa as a woman, a Latina, and as a victim of violence against women, by never once arresting or even citing her husband despite a county mandate to do so, by failing to write reports, by dumping investigations, ignoring evidence, by discouraging Teresa from calling, and more.

March 1999: Macias Case Dismissed
Federal District Court Judge Jensen dismissed the Macias case siding with Sheriff's Department arguments that police cannot be held responsible for another person's violence. This dismissal was in line with previous legal precedent which has consistently denied women legal remedy when police ignore women's pleas for help with domestic and sexual violence.

The Macias family appealed Judge Jensen's dismissal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Macias family appealed because they believe legal remedy must be established for women, or too many police will continue to ignore violence against women with impunity.

July 20, 2000: Unanimous Landmark Appellate Decision Declares Women's Constitutional Right to Non-Discriminatory Police Protection.
In the most unambiguous language to date, the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals unanimously declared women's constitutional right to non-discriminatory police protection and provided women a constitutional basis for holding police accountable for inferior police protection. The 9th Circuit Court decision also reversed Judge Jensen's dismissal and revived the Macias case in the Federal District Court.

Even if the Macias case were to lose on its particulars back in the district court, this overarching, historic decision laid down by the 9th Circuit Court will remain binding law throughout the nine western states and two U.S. territories of the 9th judicial district.

March 2001: District Court Judge Jensen Recuses Himself from Macias Case.
Following the 9th Circuit Appellate Court decision, when Judge Jensen delayed new action on the case, Macias Attorney Rick Seltzer accused Judge Jensen of overwhelming prejudice against the case and requested that Jensen recuse himself from the case. Stunningly, without further ado, Judge Jensen, whose rulings on the case had been archaic and anti-woman, announced that he was recusing himself from the case.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston was chosen by an automatic assignment process to replace Jensen.

June 8 and 11, 2001: Judge Illston Sets Trial Date and Rules in Macias' Favor on Key Case Issues
In her first set of rulings on the Macias case, Judge Susan Illston set April 22, 2002 for the trial date of Macias vs. the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department. In addition, Illston ruled that Judge Jensen's earlier ruling that police can't be held responsible for Macias' murder is null and void. Illston also ruled that the Macias family can ask money damages for Teresa's pain and suffering before her death resulting from Sheriff's denial of equal protection.

Taken together, Judge Illston's June 11th rulings signal her willingness to explore the larger, uncharted legal territory that the Macias case presents. In particular, Illston has opened the door to the possible finding that Sonoma County Sheriff's conduct was, indeed, a significant cause of the murder of Maria Teresa Macias. The second part of Judge Illston's ruling opens legal and financial remedy to all women victims of violence against women who receive inferior police response, even if it didn't end in murder. These women, too, can hold police accountable for denying their constitutional rights.

June 18, 2002, Unprecedented Million Dollar Settlement:
Sheriff Held Accountable in Domestic Violence Homicide of Maria Teresa Macias

On June 18, 2002, in the first ever monetary award by law enforcement for their failure to protect a domestic violence victim leading up to her homicide, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department agreed to pay a million dollar settlement in the landmark federal civil rights lawsuit of “Maria Teresa Macias vs. Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Ihde.”

The announcement came mid-trial at the close of dramatic testimony by Sara Rubio Hernandez detailing more than 20 attempts by her daughter, Maria Teresa Macias, to get help with her violent estranged husband, Avelino. Hernandez outlined her daughter's repeated reports to the Sheriff Dept. of Avelino’s multiple felony crimes including his sexual assaults of Teresa and her children, his constant obsessive stalking, repeated threats to kill and restraining order violations. The Sheriff's Department never once arrested or cited Avelino Macias. After deputies ignored more than twenty reports in just the last few months of her life, Avelino fatally shot Teresa, then shot and seriously wounded her mother, Sara, on April 15, 1996.

This landmark federal civil rights lawsuit, filed in October 1996 claimed that Sonoma County Sheriff's Department violated Teresa's constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. A July 2000 9th Circuit Appellate Court decision in the Macias case established for the first time and in the most unambiguous language to date, women's rights to sue law enforcement when they fail to act.

With today’s testimony and the historic damages award, Sara Rubio Hernadez said, “I have fulfilled my daughter’s wish.” Shortly before her death, Teresa told her mother, “If I die I want you to tell the world what happened to me. I don’t want other women to suffer as I have suffered. I want them to be listened to.”

The settlement sends a resounding message to law enforcement around the country that they can no longer ignore domestic violence victims with impunity. And it sends an equally forceful message to women everywhere, that they have a constitutional right to hold law enforcement accountable when law enforcement refuses to act.

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Women's Justice Center,

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