Kings of the Hill

Officers O'Bannon and Duncan have racked up an amazing number of Capitol Hill drug busts. And citizen complaints.

He testified that the door was attached to a "ceiling hinge" that automatically shut the door as it closed. In other words, the door couldn't rest ajar. To open the 100-pound door from the outside without turning the knob was, well, an accomplishment.

Snow also said he'd noticed nothing irregular about the door during his visit. In fact, he recalled Holmes needed to unlock the deadbolt to let him in. Officer O'Bannon testified that one of the partyers offered an explanation for the lazy door: The latch had broken when it was kicked in one week earlier.

But the O'Bannon version collides with the partygoers' sworn affidavits. All said O'Bannon searched Holmes without explanation or consent. All said that O'Bannon asked if he could search the apartment and that Holmes's response was "No." All said O'Bannon and other officers searched the apartment anyway.

Gabriel O'Connel, a next-door neighbor who was at the party, said, "The door was in full working order every time I used it, which was several times a day."

District Court Judge Richard Spriggs voided the search and seizure, noting that although he believed O'Bannon's story, the officer had still "inadvertently tripped over the Constitution."

"Certainly from the citizen's standpoint," Spriggs said, "it doesn't make too much difference whether the opening of the door is intentional or inadvertent. I mean, if his home is his castle, it's been breached, either intentionally or unintentionally, by the opening of the door."

"My problem," attorney Biondino now says, "is O'Bannon took it upon himself to open the door and walk right in himself. I thought that's why we fought a war in 1776--to prevent this from happening."

On behalf of O'Bannon and the people of Colorado, Deputy District Attorney Brian Allen appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.

And on June 1, the court overruled Spriggs's decision. Justice Michael Bender declared that O'Bannon had legally investigated a disturbance call and was not responsible for the faulty door swinging open. That O'Bannon stumbled across illegal drugs was a bonus. (The judge openly wondered whether O'Bannon needed a warrant once he saw the bong from outside the apartment, but Holmes's attorneys did not pursue the issue.) Instead, the high court focused on the constitutional dilemma of the case, intrigued by the unusual facts created by O'Bannon's heavy knocking: If an officer "accidentally" opens a door to a man's home and runs headlong into a drug bust, is it still legal to enter? Since the court had faith in O'Bannon's story, the decision was easy: Yes.

But if investigators wanted to check the working condition of the door, it soon became impossible. The night after Holmes and his roommates were sent to jail, vandals broke into their vacant apartment, destroyed the locks on the windows, painted on the walls, kicked in doors and ruined the lock on the front door.

Attorney Mitchell Baker knows O'Bannon and Duncan's record well.
As a part-time public defender, he has represented two clients against O'Bannon and Duncan; one of them was Carl Moten. While preparing Moten's case, Baker earned a rare privilege not afforded to average citizens: He won a motion to view the officers' confidential records.

"Based on the allegation, I felt there was a possibility there might be information in those files that might be of use in defending Mr. Moten," Baker says. He is prohibited from discussing what he read and makes great effort to emphasize that "the fact that the court gave me the files should not be read to imply that there was anything in those files that was anything good or bad."

Yet Baker can discuss the cases of public record.
"I've had cases with them before," he says, taking a long pause. "There are cases where things they've said were...interesting." Taking another long pause, Baker adds, "Those cases also involve minorities."

Another public defender, who asked not be identified, corroborated Baker's claims. "You see all these arrests by them, and if you line them all up, they all match: young black males. And most likely, there's a question regarding probable cause or with consent for search."

On May 24, 1998, at 8:25 p.m., O'Bannon and Duncan pulled over a tan Ford truck driven by nineteen-year-old Darrel Davis at 1500 Sherman Street, one block from the State Capitol. In the passenger seat was twenty-year-old Michael Oliphant. The officers ran the plates on the truck, and it came back listed as a Mazda--they believed the vehicle was stolen.

In his report, Duncan wrote that while Davis's truck was pulling to a stop, the officers noticed both occupants "bend down and appear to put something under the seat." Based on this, the officers ordered Davis and Oliphant out of the car and onto the sidewalk while they searched for weapons. Instead of finding a gun or a knife, O'Bannon and Duncan found a rock of crack cocaine and arrested the two black males for possession of a controlled substance.

"The odd thing was the happenstance to run the plates on this street, of these two black males," Baker says. "This car was doing nothing odd, nothing suspicious. Here's a guy minding his own business, driving the streets, and they chose to run his plates." The officers testified that running random plates during a shift was normal. The make on the plates had come up Mazda because Ford produces Mazda cars--Davis and Oliphant were never charged with driving a stolen vehicle. Davis had borrowed a friend's car, the officers learned.

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