Jimma Reat: Ruling in botched 911 call case opens door to federal civil rights trial

Last September, the family of Jimma Reat, a Sudanese immigrant who was killed after a 911 operator told him and his companions to return to Denver after they'd escaped a racially motivated attack, filed suit against the City of Denver. Since then, a judge issued a ruling that limited the scope of the complaint. But now, another judge has determined that the circumstances that led to Reat's death sufficiently shock the conscience that the matter is back on track for a potential federal civil rights trial. See photos, documents and more below.

Early on April 1, 2012, as we've reported, Reat and two of his brothers, Changkuoth Pal and Ran Pal, as well as Joseph Kolong, were in a vehicle near the intersection of 10th and Sheridan when a Jeep Cherokee pulled up alongside their car. The Jeep's male occupants began "harassing and attempting to injure" the four young men, according to the lawsuit, on view here.

The men in the Jeep are said to have called Reat and friends "niggers" while throwing beer bottles and what's described as "bottle rockets" at them. The back window of Reat's car was shattered in the altercation, showering the occupants with broken glass. In addition, one of the Jeep's occupants brandished a handgun.

At that point, the suit's narrative continues, Ran Pal phoned 911 to report the crime and get emergency police and medical assistance. The call was answered by Juan Jesus Rodriguez, who's listed as a defendant in the case along with the City and County of Denver. During the conversation, the victims were able to elude the men in the Jeep and find relative safety at an apartment building's parking lot in Wheat Ridge, approximately seven and a half blocks west of Denver's city limits -- and Ran Pal is said to have told the operator that he was too unsettled by the occurrence to feel comfortable driving.

Nonetheless, Rodriguez told them they needed to drive back to Denver in order to rendezvous with DPD officers, and though wary, they eventually acquiesced. But the complaint maintains that the operator didn't immediately send police to the location within Denver limits (the delay is estimated at seven minutes), nor did he create an incident report. Moreover, the suit says, he told the victims that once they had moved their car to a suitable spot, they should make themselves prominent to officers by turning on their hazard lights and leaving them flashing.

Rodriguez was still on the phone with Ran Pal when the car came to a stop in the vicinity of West 29th and Sheridan -- at which point the Jeep Cherokee rematerialized and its occupants opened fire. Jimma Reat died at the scene in Ran Pal's arms, having been shot in the back.

These facts are not in dispute. Nonetheless, as synopsized in a new ruling by a United States District Court Judge Robert Blackburn, Magistrate Judge Michael Hegarty, the first jurist to hear the case, determined that the events weren't sufficiently "shocking to the conscience" to meet the requirements of the "state-created danger" test -- one that requires "a high level of outrageousness."

While this may sound like mere semantics to a layman, the magistrate judge's conclusion had a practical, and negative, impact on the case, notes attorney John Holland, who is representing the Reat family in conjunction with colleagues Erica Grossman and Anna Holland Edwards. Under the previous ruling, Holland says, the case would have been "limited to willful, wanton, reckless state-law claims only."

That was unacceptable to Reat's attorneys. In Holland's words, "This case presents a classic example of a danger creating due-process violation by a public employee. And we felt strongly that it should be proceeding in federal court to redress a due-process-violating fatality claim."

Hence, the trip to U.S. District Court -- and yesterday, Judge Blackburn issued a ruling that gave the complaint new federal life.

Continue for more about the latest ruling in the JImma Reat lawsuit, including photos, videos, documents and more.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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