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ACLU Lawsuit: Trinidad Liable for False Arrest, Malicious Prosecution, in Undercover Drug Sting

January 8, 2015

DENVER – The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado filed suit this morning against the City of Trinidad and a pair of Trinidad detectives on behalf of two innocent women who were falsely arrested and prosecuted as part of a highly-publicized “drug sting” in December, 2013.

According to the lawsuit, detectives Phil Martin and Arsenio Vigil relied on unsubstantiated accusations made by an untrustworthy confidential informant while ignoring readily available evidence that clearly demonstrated that ACLU clients Danika Gonzales and Felicia Valdez were innocent.  According to the ACLU, these unjustified false arrests are representative of the Trinidad Police Department’s “custom, policy, and/or practice of conducting undercover stings and arrests in a manner that violates the U.S. Constitution.”

Overall, 40 individuals were arrested during Trinidad’s 2013 “drug sting,” many on the basis of false, deficient, and misleading arrest affidavits, according to the ACLU complaint.  None of the 40 arrests resulted in a drug-related conviction.

“At the Trinidad police department, it is standard operating procedure to recruit snitches of unproven and untested reliability and unleash them on the community with money and a directive to buy drugs, without the oversight, control and supervision that is regarded as standard in law enforcement circles,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein.  “The result is an open invitation for an opportunistic snitch to lie with impunity, to pocket the “buy” money, to skim drugs for personal use, and to settle personal scores by framing innocent persons, all while getting handsomely paid by the police. And that is what happened in this case, after the Trinidad police recruited informant Crystal Bachicha.”

The cases that relied on Bachicha’s accusations started to fall apart shortly after the “drug sting” and the arrests of 40 people.  Two people arrested for supposed drug sales to Bachicha were cleared after it was proven that they were actually in jail on the dates the sales supposedly occurred.

The lawsuit charges that Martin and Vigil sought arrest warrants based on Bachicha’s uncorroborated accusations while deliberately concealing from the judge a wealth of facts they knew would cast doubt on her credibility and motives.  In addition, the ACLU charges that the detectives laced the arrest affidavits with false and misleading assertions designed to manufacture probable cause for arrest.

Gonzalez, who had been Bachicha’s probation officer, lost her job as a result of the false arrest.  Valdez was fired from her job with the Trinidad School System, and she and her children were evicted from their federally-subsidized housing.

“The detectives turned a blind eye to multiple red flags indicating that their snitch was not trustworthy, and worse, they either ignored or downright concealed evidence that would have made clear that the snitch was lying and our clients were innocent,” said Paul Karlsgodt, of Baker Hostetler LLP, who is leading a team of ACLU cooperating attorneys litigating the case.

The suit was filed this morning in federal district court in Denver.

Resources:

Read the ACLU complaint:
http://static.aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Trinidad-Complaint.pdf

Visit the case page:
https://aclu-co.org/court-cases/gonzalez-v-city-trinidad/



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