The city of Aurora, Colorado, and police are being sued for what attorneys describe as a “more-than-two-hour mass roundup of innocent men, women and children at a traffic section” when officers were attempting to catch a bank robber.
It is being brought on behalf of fourteen of the twenty-eight people, who were “detained, removed, searched, restrained — and terrified” by police.
A man robbed the Wells Fargo branch in Aurora on June 2, 2012, and, according to the filed complaint, the prime suspect, Christian Paetsch, “fled with stacks of currency, one of which contained an embedded transmitter.”
Police were able to deploy a GPS-tracking device and track the “transmitter’s location.” They found the transmitter was at an intersection in southeastern Aurora—Iliff Avenue and Buckley Road.
What happened next, attorneys argue, was a clear violation of Fourth Amendment rights.
Nineteen vehicles at this intersection were stopped and barricaded by police. Brandishing “ballistic shields and pointed assault rifles directly at innocent citizens, including children under ten years old,” officers allegedly had all occupants in vehicles at the intersection “hold their arms up and outside of their vehicle windows.”
One officer, Christen Lertch, allegedly ordered the “officers to identify anyone in the stopped vehicles who appeared ‘overly nervous or anxious’ or refused to raise their hands and arms.” Also, “The officers would not permit anyone to shut off their vehicle’s ignition, put their vehicle in park, or lift their parking brakes.”
The complaint further claims that after thirty minutes occupants, who had been holding their arms out their windows, were ordered to exit the vehicles.
Police “pat down most of the individuals for weapons and handcuffed them.” Each person was “commanded” to “sit on the curb” while their vehicles were searched “without consent.” All of this occurred even though Paetsch had already been arrested and despite the fact that a “money band” was found in the vehicle Paetsch had been driving.
Additionally, despite the fact that Paetsch, a “nervous individual” who was “perspiring” when pulled out of his car, had now been detained by police thirty minutes into the roundup, officers continued to prevent everyone from leaving the intersection for the next couple of hours.
Timothy Olson, one of the plaintiffs, recalls having officers wave a shotgun in his face as they screamed at him to get down on his knees. He had “multiple back and knee surgeries and permanent nerve damage” and did not want to get down on the ground. He experienced so much pain while kneeling that he fell on his face and when he was cuffed his arm was yanked so hard that his shoulder was injured.
Another plaintiff, Crystal DeGuzman, says she had a panic attack when confronted by armed police. Though she pled for assistance, officers would not get her help.
The civil suit seeks damages for violating their “rights to be free from false arrests/unlawful seizures, excessive force and unlawful searches.”
Attorneys argue, “The APD officers had no reasonable suspicion, let alone probable cause, to believe that Plaintiffs had committed any offense.”
The police lacked a more sophisticated “handheld beacon” that was needed to “home in on the near-exact location of the transmitter.” The FBI had one, however, the police had to wait for agents to arrive at the scene before they could use it to confirm they had the right suspect. But attorneys do not believe that excuses any of the police conduct that occurred.
Remarkably, when this extraordinary event occurred, there was limited media coverage. Local broadcast news, local newspapers and various Internet news and blogs covered the story. Yet, major cable and network news outlets did not report on the story at all despite images of police brandishing weapons against innocent citizens.
Aurora police Chief Dan Oates defended the mass detention of people. “We had a virtual certainty that the bank robber was in one of those cars,” he claimed, although they had no idea what car the suspect was driving.
“We didn’t have a description, didn’t know race or gender or anything, so a split-second decision was made to stop all the cars at that intersection, and search for the armed robber,” Aurora police officer Frank Fania said.
But the complaint suggests police did, in fact, have at least a “general physical description” of the robber, and “most individuals did not even resemble the robber’s description — a white male in his twenties or thirties, 5’6” and 130 pounds.”
Fania also told a local ABC News affiliate afterward, “Most of the adults were handcuffed, then were told what was going on and were asked for permission to search the car,” and, “They all granted permission, and once nothing was found in their cars, they were un-handcuffed.”
Officers may have asked people to sign a release so their car could be searched, but did they really have a choice?
Mary Ann Lombardi, one of the plaintiffs, says police threatened to arrest her after she refused to let them search her vehicle.
Nearly two weeks later, The Denver Post published an editorial asking if this “dragnet” was necessary.
“Police obviously have the right to abridge your privacy and curtail your freedom in certain clear emergencies. They can enter your house in hot pursuit of a dangerous criminal, for example, even without a warrant. But does mass detention at an intersection really qualify under that standard? We doubt it — and find the handcuffing of motorists particularly troubling,” the Post argued.
Eugene Volokh, a law professor who blogs for The Volokh Conspiracy, reacted, “Protecting the public from armed bank robbers is certainly very important; but handcuffing dozens of innocent people — in a situation where it was certain that the great bulk of the people were indeed innocent — for over an hour as part of this sort of blanket seizure strikes me as much too high a price to pay for this sort of law enforcement.”
In other words, the officers may have had a fair argument that what had happened was legal if all they had done was stop the vehicles in the intersection and question people to see if they were the suspect. However, when police chose to forcefully put people in handcuffs for an indefinite period of time, they were now clearly abusing their authority and violating individuals’ rights.
Photos from complaint filed on behalf of plaintiffs in the lawsuit.