On June 2, 2012, Christian Paetsch, a former high school music teacher, broke bad in a big way, donning a beekeeper's mask to rob a Wells Fargo bank in Aurora.
Aurora police officers subsequently took Paetsch into custody, but only after detaining dozens of vehicle passengers, including children, for well over an hour. Now, many of those individuals have filed a lawsuit in the case. Here are the details.
The suit, which we've included below, notes that the cash stolen by Paetsch, who was sentenced to just over seven years behind bars for the crime back in April 2013, included a GPS transponder that signaled its general location to the Aurora Police Department. But attorney David Lane, who represents the plaintiffs in the suit, says the APD didn't have the proper equipment needed to zero in on the device's exact location.
"The FBI had the pinpoint locator," Lane notes, "but it was a Saturday, and when the Aurora police called, no one was home. So an on-duty agent had to drive for over an hour to get the pinpoint locator -- and when he finally arrived, he didn't know how to use it.
"At that point," he continues, "everybody had been detailed for over an hour. People were pulled out of their cars at gunpoint, including a fourteen-year-old child, who had a high-powered rifle pointed directly at his chest. And pointing weapons at children is never all right unless the child is armed or you have some compelling reason to believe the child is armed."
In addition, Lane points out that "they knew the robber was a man about five-feet-six-inches and 130 pounds, but they patted everybody down regardless of their physical description. And even after they were found not to have any weapons, they were still put into handcuffs and forced to sit on the curb for hours while their cars were searched. And this went on even after they identified the robber. They kept searching cars for possibly up to a half hour after they'd already gotten him."
Ultimately, everyone other than Paetsch was released, but Lane argues that many have had long-lasting effects as a result of the tactics. He highlights one plaintiff, Tim Olson. "Tim was taken out of his car at gunpoint and they officer told him roughly, 'Get on your knees.' Tim said, 'I just had surgery. I can't.' But they pushed him down on his knees anyway, and then they picked him up even after he'd told them he had a bad shoulder, too. There's a video of the police jerking him up by his shoulder. He's still in physical therapy for it all this time later -- and Tim didn't match the description of the robber at all. He's six-one and weighs 230 or 240 pounds."
Paetsch also complained about the search procedure; in a federal complaint, he moved to suppress evidence based on constitutional violations. This demand was rejected by government authorities, who stated that "the roadblock, although a 'seizure' of all of the individuals stopped, was constitutional because it had a proper purpose and was implemented in a reasonable manner, given the exigent circumstances under which the law enforcement personnel involved were operating." Continue for more about the Aurora search lawsuit, including additional photos from the scene, two documents and more.
In the end, Judge William Martinez ruled that Paetsch's statements could not be used in court, but the evidence found in his van was admissible. But "in his opinion," Lane allows, "Judge Martinez made it clear that he wasn't saying innocent travelers had no civil rights cases to bring. So he was hinting that he believes my clients' civil rights were violated."
Granted, Lane's view is a matter of interpretation. We've included Judge Martinez's order below so you can make up your own mind.
Meanwhile, Lane stresses that he believes a search might have been constitutional had a different approach been taken.
"The police are allowed to have a brief investigatory detention -- meaning that if they're not sure who the perpetrator was, they can briefly detain people. Say there's a purse-snatching, and several blocks away, they find a guy who matches the description. They're allowed to put him in the car, take him to the scene, let the victim see him and say, 'That's the guy' or 'That's not the guy.' But that whole process should take ten or fifteen minutes -- and I've never seen a brief investigatory detention take two hours with people in handcuffs the whole time, especially after they've caught the perpetrator and they know it.
"I think moving cars into a dead-end roadblock one at a time, asking people to get out of their cars, looking at their physical descriptions and explaining the situation would have been reasonable. And if they had reasonable suspicion, they could have searched any given car. But otherwise, motorists should have been released one at a time and not handcuffed, not sat down on a curb, not had their car searched without their consent. And that's what happened."
Look below to see a photograph of Christian Paetsch, followed by the lawsuit and Judge Martinez's ruling in regard to Paetsch's motion to suppress evidence.
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More from our Marijuana archive circa August 2010: "Medical marijuana conviction against Frank Marzano tossed due to illegal search."