A federal court rejected a request from Aurora officials to halt the discovery of evidence in a civil lawsuit stemming from the police department’s actions against a group of largely peaceful protesters at city hall last summer.
The head of the department said at the time her officers’ actions were necessary because a small group of agitators threw rocks and water bottles, while attorneys for the plaintiffs characterized the police’s tactics as “intimidation.”
A June 27, 2020, vigil took place outside the Aurora Municipal Center in memory of Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man who died following a physical interaction that police initiated while McClain was walking home in August 2019. According to the civil complaint filed by five of the participants in the vigil, police Chief Vanessa Wilson ordered officers to disperse the crowd using chemical agents and non-lethal projectiles with little warning.
Video from the event showed attendees listening to violinists at the time. Personnel from the Jefferson County and Arapahoe County sheriff’s offices were also reportedly involved in the operation.
Mari Newman, a partner at Killmer, Lane & Newman who represents the plaintiffs, described to Westword last summer that "in a massive show of intimidation, these officers marched in on what they call the Great Lawn and pushed people off the lawn — and when people didn't move, they used pepper spray in their faces, and prodded and even hit them with batons."
The plaintiffs allege Aurora violated their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, unlawful use of force and retaliation. The more than four dozen defendants, which include officers and Mayor Mike Coffman, asked the federal court to dismiss the lawsuit for a failure to state a claim, and also asserted qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine that generally shields government employees from civil liability absent a violation of clearly-established legal rights. In January, the defendants asked the court to halt, or stay, the discovery of evidence until there had been a ruling on whether to grant qualified immunity.
The grant would only apply to the alleged federal violations. The Colorado General Assembly approved a measure in June 2020 amid racial justice protests nationwide that eliminated qualified immunity for officers in state cases.
Attorneys for the defendants wrote that a stay on the proceedings “is necessary to protect the officer defendants from facing unfair burdens of litigation particularly because a finding that the Officer Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity may require the dismissal of all claims against them.”
In declining the request, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nina Y. Wang found that because qualified immunity would not apply to the city of Aurora itself, and the officers would be important witnesses in that case, it did not make sense to pause the production of evidence. The same logic applied to the state-level claims.
“[I]t would be incongruous to permit the invocation of qualified immunity for the federal claims to stay discovery on the state claims, particularly when the Colorado legislature expressly repudiated qualified immunity,” she wrote in a Feb. 25 order.
Wang also noted that it was important for “public confidence” in the police department to expeditiously resolve the claims against Aurora, including those alleging the policies or practices of the city contributed to any violation of the plaintiffs’ rights.
An outside report that the city council commissioned into the death of McClain recently determined officers lacked reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in detaining McClain, and paramedics injected him with the sedative ketamine based on a “grossly inaccurate” estimation of his size.
The case is Minter et al. v. Aurora et al.