A former music school teacher is facing 7 to 14 years in prison for holding up an Aurora bank last summer. Christian Paetsch pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday.
But the innocent people caught in the search immediately following the bank robbery are just now beginning to search for justice.
It was a scene in Aurora that looked like something straight out of the movies, but this real life drama is about to play out in the courts.
University of Denver law professor, Justin Merceau said, “This is the sort of thing that, if litigated correctly, it could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court because it is an open question.”
On June 2, 2012, Aurora police shut down the intersection at E. Iliff Ave. and S. Buckley Rd. while searching for an armed robber who had just held up a Wells Fargo Bank.
They tracked a GPS device in the stolen money to the intersection, but they didn’t have details on the car or the suspect. So officers blocked the intersection and pulled dozens of people out of their cars at gunpoint.
Tim Olson, a Denver mechanic was one of those drivers caught in the police dragnet. He said, “Suddenly there was a police officer straight ahead, takes a shotgun or rifle and aims my direction. You know never having been in that situation before it was extremely confusing, extremely intimidating.”
Olson says once he was out of the car, officers twisted his arm so badly, it injured his shoulder. Olson said, “I was telling the officer ‘you’re hurting me. Let go.’ They said ‘quit resisting.’”
Now he says his injury is affecting his everyday life and his work. Olson said, “My shoulder gets to the point where I can’t drive. It aches, starts to throb. I have to put my arm down. I can’t work with my arm over my head for long periods of time anymore because it starts to ache.”
Attorney David Lane represents several of the people who were detained. He says some for hours.
Lane said, “Briefly detaining them was not unconstitutional while they investigated. But the way they went about it, roughing people up, cuffing people after they’ve been frisked, detaining people for a long period of time, even after the bank robber had been identified… those are the kinds of things we are looking at as far as constitutional violations under the fourth amendment.”
D-U law professor and constitutional law expert Justin Marceau is watching this case closely.
He said, “So if we accept this as constitutional, we’re probably accepting more of a police state, we may want to, maybe things have changed, things are more dangerous. But it’s not what conduct the fourth amendment originally had conceived of is as permissible.”
He said with new technology we may see more cases like this. “This sort of thing is going to become more of a problem. At the founding of our constitution, we didn’t have GPS. Now we are locating fleeing bank suspects to an intersection. We don’t know the color, we don’t know which car. It’s a busy intersection, we know they’re there. Should we be able to stop all 30 people? This is a question our founding fathers couldn’t conceive of. Eventually, the sort of question the Supreme Court will have to address.”
At the time, Aurora police chief Dan Oates came out defending his officers saying he did not believe anyone’s constitutional rights were violated. “The law is clear that investigative detentions are lawful for a reasonable period of time, determined by facts and circumstances. [The] suspect was in one of 19 cars. No question we inconvenienced citizens. We feel badly about that and we apologize again to them today. But we made a tough choice here and we arrested a very dangerous bank robber.”
But for those involved, like Tim Olson, that apology wasn’t enough.
Olson said, “Police have a terrible job, they have crazy people with guns. But why can’t they detain people in a way that does not cause physical damage to them? Again, I was going for a gallon of milk.” But now he may be heading to court.
Lane says he will approach the city with a settlement package in the next few weeks.
The city attorney for Aurora, Charlie Richardson said, “Until overruled, the decision by the federal judge overseeing this case is the law of the case. We agree with the judge that our officers’ actions were appropriate.”