No one should ever have to worry about the police trying to extort money from them and ruin their lives.

I am one of the many people ensnared in the Albuquerque Police Department’s (APD) DWI Unit’s extortion scandal. I’m sharing my story because what happened to me could happen to you or someone you love, and I never want it to happen to anyone ever again.  

Before I was falsely charged for drinking and driving last summer, I was rebuilding my life and running a janitorial business with my aunt. I had moved back to Albuquerque from Los Angeles a few years before when my career as a professional dancer ended because of a knee injury. My mom and I were getting closer to my aunt and her 16-year-old daughter and living with them to save money for a place of our own.  

But that all ended one Albuquerque evening in late June.  

My cousin and I had been out for an evening of pizza downtown. On the way home, I followed the time-honored Albuquerque tradition of revving my engine in the tunnel under the train tracks. As I pulled out of the tunnel, an unmarked police SUV started flashing its lights at me. I immediately pulled over.  

It was the beginning of a nightmare that I’m still living through. 

The police officer, Joshua Montaño told me I was speeding and that my eyes were red. He asked me if I had been drinking. I said no. He kept complimenting my ‘17 Mustang GT and was friendly like he was trying to be my friend. I thought this was very strange. Now I know that I fit the profile this officer and the others involved in this corruption scheme were looking for and that he might have been trying to get me comfortable so I would accept “help” from him later. 

I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been in a situation like this.

I’m pretty sure we both knew I wasn’t drunk, but he made me get out of the car, and in front of my teenage cousin and all the traffic going by, he gave me two sobriety tests: an eye test and a counting test. I was nervous and humiliated, but I passed both. He then asked me to do a test that required standing on one leg. I politely told him that I had a knee injury that would make it hard to pass, but I didn’t refuse. I followed his directions, walking back and forth on a line successfully but wobbled when I stood on my bad leg. He said because I had a minor in the car, he had to take me into the station for a breathalyzer test. 

I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been in a situation like this. I don’t get in trouble. Still, even though I felt like something was off, I was sure once I blew, he would let me go. I was wrong. 

I was concerned about leaving my young cousin alone on the side of the road. He promised to take good care of her (which turns out he did not, and she was picked up by her minor boyfriend). He handcuffed me, put me in the backseat of the police car, and took me to the station. All the way there, he continued to cheerfully chat me up and assured me that if I passed the test, I could go home. 

Once there, officers took my Apple watch and my jewelry, including a gold bracelet that I always wear because it has sentimental value to me. Other officers were looking at me like they were feeling bad for me, but none of them helped me. I wondered if it was because I'm Black or because I'm gay. Now, I think it was because I was another person they could try to extort. I could not believe that the people who were supposed to protect me were abusing their power to hurt me.  

I took the breathalyzer twice and was below the legal limit. I was sure that now I would be able to go home but that’s not what happened. He charged me with a DWI. I felt like the ground was crumbling below my feet. I was terrified and confused. I still had my phone, and I wanted to call 911 for help but realized I was already with the very people I would call. It didn’t feel real. It was too much like a horror movie to be real. With his lapel camera removed, Officer Montaño told me he had an attorney friend who could make this all go away. Alarm bells were going off in my head. This was not right.  

I could not believe that the people who were supposed to protect me were abusing their power to hurt me.  

I called my family, but we are trained to trust and believe the police, and I spent the night in a freezing jail cell.  

When I was released from jail the next morning, they gave me everything back except my bracelet. Officer Montaño left me a voicemail saying the attorney had it. I soon got a call from a paralegal, Rick Mendez, from the law office of Tom Clear, whose number Officer Montaño had given me. It was clear that this was a setup, but I wanted my bracelet back, so I agreed to meet him at the law office.  

My mother was afraid something bad would happen to me and begged me not to go. That’s one of the reasons I decided to record our meeting. 

In the meeting, with my phone, I recorded the paralegal “guaranteeing” to me that this whole thing would disappear from my record if I paid him $8,500. I didn’t take him up on the offer for two reasons: I hadn't been driving drunk, and I didn’t have the money. He gave me my bracelet back in shrink-wrapped plastic and his business card.  

Eventually, I found out the FBI was investigating this organized APD corruption ring, and my case was dismissed. 

During these seven months, my life was taken away from me.

I wish I could say this all happened fast, but it didn’t. My case wasn’t dismissed until a few weeks ago in mid-January. During these seven months, my life was taken away from me. My aunt refused to believe that I was not drunk that evening. It was clear my mom and I could no longer live with her and that I could no longer work with her. To this day, there is a rift between our families. I couldn’t drive anymore, because a judge had ordered an Interlock on my car, which stops you from starting your engine while under the influence, but I couldn’t afford one so working regularly was impossible. Worse still, so I could survive, my mother lent me the money we had worked hard to save to buy a house. We lost our dream of being homeowners and the financial security that comes with it.  

I spent Christmas alone for the first time ever.  

I became so depressed that there were some days I could barely get out of bed. I still cannot drive at night. Every time I see a police officer, I feel my anxiety rise. I do not feel safe. I want to get that back, but I don’t know if I ever will. It is truly shocking that so many APD officers were extorting drivers for years and years. It felt like a movie, but this is my life. 

Through a mutual friend, I found my way to the ACLU. They are going to represent me in a lawsuit against the APD and the City of Albuquerque. I want the police and attorneys who abused their power to be held accountable and for justice to be served. No one should ever have to worry about the police trying to extort money from them and ruin their lives. I hope my story encourages others to come forward and to avoid this ever happening to anyone ever again.