Lawsuit: Denver CARES Detox at Mile High Stadium Is a Moneymaking Scheme

Plenty of drinking takes place at Mile High Stadium, particularly during Denver Broncos games like the team's painful loss to the New England Patriots this past weekend — and fans that Denver police officers feel have over-indulged frequently find themselves in detox under the auspices of Denver CARES, a behavioral-health facility operated by Denver Health and Hospital Authority.

But are these detentions always necessary to protect the public? A new lawsuit shared below says no and maintains that such actions at Mile High and other high-profile venues and events in Denver are primarily about making money rather than enhancing safety.

"What we believe is going on," says Elisabeth Owen, the attorney for Michael Cornell and Lauren Rodriguez, the plaintiffs in the case, "is that Denver CARES is putting people into detox with the assistance of the Denver Police Department not because they actually meet the criteria for emergency commitment, but because they can pay — and that generates revenue."

On November 29, 2015, according to the suit, Cornell and Rodriguez, who are Broncos season-ticket holders, attended a previous Broncos-Patriots game — and over the course of the contest (which Denver won 30-24), they "consumed a number of alcoholic beverages that they lawfully purchased from vendors at Mile High." They left the stadium just before the final whistle, heading to the car of Rodriguez's parents, who had also attended the game and planned to drive them home. But before they reached their destination, unnamed DPD officers "began interrogating Mr. Cornell about his level of intoxication."

As the lawsuit points out, "it is not unlawful to be intoxicated" in the State of Colorado, "even in public." Yet the complaint asserts that Cornell was promptly placed in handcuffs and his head was slammed against the side of a patrol car — and a Denver CARES document cited by Owen confirmed that he had a swollen forehead when admitted to detox.

By this time, Rodriguez's parents had arrived, and their daughter reacted to what was happening to her boyfriend by climbing into their car and locking herself inside. Shortly thereafter, one of the officers "banged on the windows" and "threatened to break a window and forcibly remove Ms. Rodriguez from the car" if she didn't exit voluntarily — which she did "out of fear," the suit maintains, leading to her own detention.

The pair were subsequently placed without their permission in the Denver CARES facility, which is outfitted with cots and offers food and Gatorade to detainees. Several hours later, they were made to take part in what the suit calls an "exit interview," during which staffers "asked a number of intrusive questions about each of their personal lives and behaviors and endeavored to force 'counseling' regarding a number of personal matters like sexually transmitted diseases and lifestyle choices." Afterward, they were charged $325 for their "treatment."

Yes, this last word does indeed have quotes around it in the complaint, which argues that the couples' "detention and incarceration was the result of the Denver Police Department and Denver CARES’ collusive policy and practice of forcibly detaining intoxicated individuals under the guise of providing consensual medical care to generate revenue for the City and County of Denver and the Denver Health and Hospital Authority."

Even though the Cornell-Rodriguez lawsuit focuses on events that took place at Mile High Stadium, attorney Owen — the managing director of Prisoners' Justice League of Colorado and a major part of a 2015 Westword feature story about transgender prisoner rights — stresses that it's not the only setting for Denver CARES-Denver Police Department team-ups.

"They have this enormous service patrol that goes to places they know they can find a lot of drunk people who are likely to have money — or maybe professional people who might have something to lose and who are willing to pay the money and get out the door and forget about the whole experience," Owen says. "That's what piqued my interest in this particular issue."

As far as Owen knows, "the only legal authority to sort of scoop someone off the street and detain them in what's effectively a medical facility is the emergency-commitment statute, which tracks mental-health commitment — what we would ordinarily think of as being committed." [See Article 65 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, which begins on page 47 of the second document at the bottom of this post.]

The concept, Owen goes on, "is that you have an impairment and you can't be safely out in the world, which is a rare condition. And people who've been drinking don't necessarily meet that statute just because they've been drinking. Any of us who go out and have three or four drinks for dinner could be swept up under that policy."

However, Owen emphasizes that Denver CARES, which hasn't commented about the suit thus far, "isn't invoking the statute. Rather, the paperwork suggests they will take the position that these people are consenting to receive medical care."

Owen has the Denver CARES files on Cornell and Rodriguez, "and generally speaking, they mirror medical records you'd get when you go into the hospital. They suggest people are asking to be treated. But in my clients' case, and in the case of most people, they're demanding to leave, and Denver CARES says you can't leave, and if you do, we'll arrest you — although for what is beyond me."

Because of that, she continues, "this isn't about whether the statute is constitutional, and it's not really about whether they were clearly a danger. It's more that under the guise of Denver Health, Denver CARES basically saying that all these people are voluntarily agreeing to alcohol and drug treatment when they haven't, and they've detained them under this premise."

"This is concerning," says Owen, "because it says a lot about how our society views the importance of liberty. You hear this political rhetoric about constitutional rights and getting the government out of our lives and making sure we're free to do whatever we want. But then you have this scheme going on that's really the most fundamental restriction of liberty you can possibly have, and nobody is taking it seriously. Probably hundreds of people go through this on a weekly basis and everybody is acting like this is normal — like it's normal to be swept off the street for not committing a crime. And that's a slippery slope. These are not criminals we're talking about, and they aren't mentally ill people. There are classes of people who have limited constitutional rights, but my clients aren't in that class — and when we stop protecting the general concept of liberty, we're in very serious territory."

With regard to the dollars and cents of the situation, Owen says, "They tell you to pay $325 now or we'll send you a bill for more money later — so it's basically a shakedown. People are traumatized by what they've experienced, and their instinct is, 'I'll pay and put this behind me.' It borders on extortion for medical treatment that basically consists of breakfast and Gatorade. They're not really doing anything for anybody — and the circumstances of these detentions make me believe this is about something other than public safety or promoting the public good."

Denver CARES "serves a large homeless and indigent population," Owen allows, "and they don't have to pay because they're indigent. This offers a possible reason for rounding up people like my clients — to recoup some of the costs of serving an indigent population. Otherwise, what interest does the government have? Generally, everything circles back to money, and it logically follows that this is why they're doing it in this instance."

The lawsuit's discovery process could reveal whether this supposition is accurate. "It's certainly our hope and expectation that we will get information from the county and from Denver Health to explain this pattern," Owen says. "It's a pattern that I think is suggested by the conduct that we as the public can observe even without having access to private records of the government. Look at where the police are doing this — at Broncos games, in LoDo, in places where there are a lot of people who look like they can pay for detox services."

Aside from legal matters, Owen sees the Denver CARES approach as "being a little judgmental. There's this aspect of, 'You made a bad choice and we're going to come in and save you from yourself, because Lord knows what might have happened to you if we'd have let you go.' But in this case, my clients would have been driven home by her parents, and there's no evidence they were any danger to themselves or to the world. So it wasn't that this was a choice between being arrested or going to detox. It was a choice between going home and going about their lives or going to detox. And obviously, it's not a favor to be taken to detox."

Here's the complaint, followed by the Colorado statutes pertaining to emergency holds.

Michael Cornell and Lauren Rodriguez v. Denver CARES, et. al.

Colorado Revised Statutes, Title 27: Behavioral Health

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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