Taos man charged with battery upon a peace officer — over a handshake

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 7/11/19

Can a handshake constitute a fourth-degree felony?

The 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office will have to prove why it can this week.

On Thursday (July 11), a 65-year-old janitor who …

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Taos man charged with battery upon a peace officer — over a handshake

Posted

Updated July 11 at 10 a.m.

Prior to the preliminary examination that was set for July 11, the 8th Judicial District Attorney's Office dismissed this case without prejudice, meaning it may still be refiled in the future.

Can a handshake constitute a fourth-degree felony?

The 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office will have to prove why it can this week.

On Thursday (July 11), a 65-year-old janitor who works at Enos Garcia Elementary is scheduled to appear in Taos Magistrate Court for a preliminary examination in a battery against a peace officer case. The hearing will decide whether there is evidence to suggest Abeyta injured a Taos Police officer when he shook her hand in May.

A New Mexico State Police patrolman arrested Alfred Abeyta, the school’s custodian, on May 21. An arrest warrant charges Abeyta with allegedly injuring Officer Elise Iringan’s right hand when he shook it at the school on May 7. The 65-year-old was also charged with one petty misdemeanor count of battery for allegedly grabbing a student by the back of the neck during a disciplinary matter at the school earlier in the day.

Iringan, who served as a patrolwoman with Taos Police for approximately two years before she was promoted to the rank of detective this summer, was dispatched to the school after the student’s mother called police to relay her son’s complaint.

According to an arrest warrant affidavit Iringan filed in Taos Magistrate Court on May 21, the young student was “upset and crying” as he told her that Abeyta had grabbed him by the neck. He said Abeyta took hold of him after another student pushed him in a hallway, causing him to spill a juice box.

The boy said the janitor didn’t let go of his neck until he had directed him to a classroom to speak with a teacher. The student said he felt pain during the incident, according to the affidavit.

Iringan wrote that when she met with Abeyta to ask him about what had happened, she introduced herself and shook his hand, an interaction that she later claimed constituted a second charge, one that – unlike the first – carries potential prison time.

“When Mr. Abeyta shook my right hand, he did so with so much force that I instantaneously felt shooting pains from my fingers to my elbow,” Iringan wrote in the affidavit.

In spite of the injury she later described in the affidavit, Iringan wrote that the interaction with Abeyta continued without interruption on May 7.

“I did not mention anything at this time, as I did not think it was a serious matter and thought that the pain would subside,” she continued in the affidavit. “I also did not want to indicate to Mr. Abeyta that he had inflicted pain, as I thought that it may be his intention to hurt me.”

She asked Abeyta whether he knew why she was there. Abeyta said yes, according to Iringan’s report, but he gave a different account of what had happened.

Abeyta said the student was “being disruptive with other children.” He said he confronted the boy after he spilled the juice. He admitted to touching his neck as he directed him down the hall, but denied ever grabbing or harming the child.

At the end of the affidavit, Iringan circles back to the handshake, summarizing: “I believe Mr. Abeyta intended to inflict pain or injury to me during our initial contact. The manner and force used to shake my hand was unreasonable and excessive, resulting in the diagnosis of a sprain and possible stress fractures.”

The head of Iringan’s department, Police Chief David Trujillo, confirmed that he was aware of the incident at the school. While he said that Iringan took time to visit a doctor for an X-ray after the handshake, he said that the officer took no time off from work as a result of the alleged injury.

Iringan’s body camera was running during the incident, Trujillo said. He has reviewed the footage, but found nothing conclusive to verify Iringan’s claims.

“In the video you can see where they shake hands, but you don’t see their hands, so I couldn’t tell myself, therefore I couldn’t pass judgement on whether he shook her hand too hard or what,” Trujillo said.

Iringan’s affidavit does not make a note of any witnesses to the incident, or any other interviews she conducted during her investigation.

To his knowledge, Trujillo said Abeyta and Iringan had no interactions prior to the May 7 call.

He, on the other hand, has known Abeyta for years.

“I’ve never known him to be anti–law enforcement,” Trujillo said. “I’ve never known him to be an individual who holds a grudge against any law enforcement officer for any reason.”

Trujillo said that while Iringan is not the most experienced officer at his department, she has been one of the most productive.

“Actually, statistics-wise, she was one of our most aggressive officers,” Trujillo said. “A lot of reports, a lot of citations, a lot of DWIs. She is a go-getter. She’s one of the more active officers on the streets.”

Following his arrest on May 21, Abeyta was incarcerated at the Taos County Adult Detention Center. He was released on his own recognizance at a first appearance in magistrate court the following day. Court records indicate that he has not submitted a plea to either charge.

On Thursday, Abeyta is scheduled to appear for a preliminary examination before Magistrate Court Judge Ernest Ortega. At the hearing, the state and Abeyta’s public defense attorney, James Mamalis, will parse through evidence backing up or contradicting the allegations carried by either charge.

It’s not clear at this time what evidence might exist beyond the conflicting stories of the young student, Abeyta and Iringan.

If the felony battery charge does move beyond the hearing, Abeyta – who has no prior charges, according to state court records – could be exposed to possible prison time.

Claims of battery related to handshakes, while rare, are not unheard of.

At a children’s birthday party in 2014 in Boca Raton, Florida, a 76-year-old lawyer named George Vallario reported severe pain after shaking hands with a fellow attorney, Peter Lindley, and later filed a lawsuit against him, according to a story in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Court records filed in Palm Beach County indicate that the suit went to jury trial in July 2017. The jury determined that Vallario’s legal team didn’t have enough evidence to make the charges stick.

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