Judge declines to dismiss charges against Colorado Springs protesters

By: Rachel Riley •
December 28, 2017• Updated: December 28, 2017 at 9:24 pm

A Colorado Springs judge has refused to dismiss charges against four people arrested during a downtown protest last spring, rejecting their attorney’s argument that undercover police officers had wrongfully infiltrated their local political group.

Eric Verlo, 56, Nazli McDonnell, 55, Taylor Donner, 24, and Andrew Hunt, 23 – all members of a socialist discussion group chartered by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs – were arrested on suspicion of violating two city ordinances after police say they blocked traffic and refused to move from the street when ordered to the sidewalk at the March 26 event.

Prominent civil rights lawyer David Lane, an attorney for two of the defendants, filed a motion to dismiss the charges against all four in September after they learned through a public records request that at least one undercover law enforcement officer had infiltrated the group months before the demonstration.

Lane argued that police engaged in “outrageous conduct,” broke a federal rule when they infiltrated a “completely peaceful” political group with no criminal history and violated the protesters’ constitutional rights to free speech and due process by arresting them – all arguments that were rejected by Judge Kristen Hoffecker in her Dec. 21 ruling.

Police officials testified at an evidentiary hearing early this month that officers began monitoring local political groups after violence erupted at demonstrations elsewhere in the country following the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Gazette news partner KKTV reported.

The case raises questions about whether police surveillance is necessary to protect public safety at a time when Trump’s presidency has incited waves of political activism across the nation – a dilemma for law enforcement agencies that has spawned fears among activist groups who believe their free speech rights may be at risk.

“It’s a shame that Colorado Springs law enforcement can break the law with impunity and the judge is not willing to impose any sanction on them,” Lane told The Gazette. “The fact that our government is making war on the First Amendment, and this judge is helping them do so, is very disturbing to me.”

Colorado Springs police Lt. Mark Comte, who testified at the hearing, told two officers to attend another activist meeting last January at the Wild Goose Meeting House, where several local organizations discussed plans to protest the appearance of controversial political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos at UCCS, according to Hoffecker’s ruling. Comte gave the orders after another local group, the Colorado Springs Anti-fascists, said in a Facebook post demonstrators might resort to “physical action” at the protest, Hoffecker states in the ruling.

Some of the meeting’s attendees reportedly discussed plans to push past police, break into the auditorium and unplug the audio system during Yiannopoulos’ appearance – which Hoffecker called “potential criminal conduct” that justified the agency’s decision to continue monitoring the protesters.

When contacted on Thursday, Lane maintained that police failed to justify their surveillance of the UCCS organization.

“They provided reasons to infiltrate a bunch of other groups, but this not group,” he said. “They have never engaged in violent acts or threatened violence. And the fact that other groups out there have done that does not give police the right to infiltrate this group.”

Hoffecker also rejected Lane’s argument that one of the undercover officers, who Lane said became “loud” and “hostile,” put the protesters’ lives in danger by having a loaded handgun with the safety off tucked into his waistband. She said the defendants had other ways to express their views aside from marching in the streets, including demonstrating on the steps of City Hall and on the sidewalk.

Lane has contended that the protesters complied with officers’ orders to move from the street and never blocked traffic.

The federal rule he cited, a part of the Code of Federal Regulations, bars agencies that receive federal funding from collecting criminal intelligence information on political groups unless there’s “reasonable suspicion” the organization is involved in criminal activity.

Lt. Howard Black, a spokesman for Colorado Springs police, declined to comment on the ruling because the case is pending.

Verlo called Hoffecker’s decision “disappointing.” He told The Gazette the appearance of the undercover officers has had a “chilling effect” on the group’s membership and activities.

“We really did expose the police action as being outrageous, so it would have been nice to see a municipal judge show some backbone,” he said in an interview.

According to the ruling, a trial date for the defendants will be set by Jan. 4, or they will appear in court again that day.

Contact Rachel Riley: 636-0108